A cancer patient’s best friend

Alumni Profiles
by Shelley Pomerance

Sheila Kussner in the Hope & Cope Wellness Centre’s dining room (Photo: Howard Kay)

It’s 11 p.m. and Sheila Kussner, BA ’53, LLD’90, is still on the phone. In her distinctive raspy voice, the words spilling out as if there’s no time to lose, she offers counsel and comfort to a frightened young person with cancer. Kussner knows that fear well. When she was just 14, she was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma, a form of bone cancer, and her leg was amputated.

Now, nearing 80, she works up to 19 hours a day, seven days a week, giving guidance to people battling the disease, overseeing the organization she founded, Hope & Cope, and fundraising tirelessly. She’s got great connections in the medical community, and chances are that first thing tomorrow morning she’ll pull a few strings and get that young cancer patient in to see a top specialist ASAP. In jest, friends and colleagues sometimes call her the Energizer Bunny. But there’s a streak of Mother Teresa in her, too.

When the teenaged Kussner was operated on for bone cancer, the odds weren’t in her favour. Osteogenic sarcoma was typically a death sentence. “There was no physio then, there were no self-help groups, so I just plodded along as best I could.” She went on to finish high school, attend McGill, get married and have children. She counts herself lucky. “Because of that, I owe the community something. I’m paying back.”

But it wasn’t her own illness that galvanized her into action. Years later, when her husband Marvyn developed a serious cancer at 42, she realized that there was hardly any information available on where to find a good doctor, a decent book on the disease, or a wig if you faced chemo-related hair loss. That’s when she created Hope & Cope. Affiliated with the Jewish General Hospital, the organization has more than 450 volunteers, many of them cancer survivors, who offer counselling to patients and their families.

“This year we’re celebrating 30 years in the business,” says Kussner in her brass tacks style, adding proudly, “It’s the only organization of its kind in Canada.” (though it’s being emulated in Calgary, Toronto, New York and Australia).

Along the way, Kussner championed the creation of McGill’s Department of Oncology in the late eighties, spearheading a $27 million fundraising campaign that focused on research and patient care. She also played an instrumental role in establishing the Christine and Herschel Victor/Hope & Cope Chair in Psychosocial Oncology, the first of its kind in Quebec.  The Jewish General Hospital’s palliative care unit also owes its existence, in part, to Kussner’s perseverance.

Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. She is an officer of both the Order of Canada and the Ordre du Québec, and holds honorary degrees from McGill and the Université de Montréal.  For several years, Kussner served on McGill’s board of governors, and is now a governor emerita.

Her latest accomplishment, the JGH Hope & Cope Wellness Centre, is a haven where people recovering from cancer can come for fitness training, yoga and meditation, cooking lessons, art therapy, or to join a self-help group, all at no cost. “People come here and they forget they have cancer!” says its founder.

“If people are happy doing what they’re doing, they may live longer,” she adds. The best proof of that might be Kussner herself.


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