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Celebrating Janette Sam's career and the impact she has made on access to cancer screening in B.C.

Reflecting on the importance of mentorship, advancements in technology, and improvements to public health in honour of International Women’s Day.
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​It’s 1983, “Every Breath You Take” is the number one song, shoulder-pads are the height of fashion, MASH is ending after 11 seasons, and Janette Sam starts working at BC Cancer.

Janette began her career as an X-ray Technologist, developing an affinity for the artistry of breast imaging. Her love of always chasing the perfect picture and getting to work with women led her to spend 24 years in the role. Meanwhile in 1989 as Janette was busy working directly with patients, the Screening Program was born. In 2007 their paths collided with her joining the program as the Provincial Practice Leader. In 2010 she was promoted into her current role as Director of Operations for Breast and Lung Screening.

How much have things changed in the nearly 40 years Janette has been at BC Cancer?

When she started it was just a dark room and a few x-ray machines (which she had to know how to fix when a fuse blew). CT and ultrasound were new and not yet standard. MRI was still being researched. Janette didn’t just witness the changes in technology, she had an opportunity to lead them.

Janette led the switch to digital mammography and digital reporting for the breast screening program. Before this, mobile X-ray films were mailed in a light-tight container to a centralized location where they were developed and then read. The film images would have to be shipped around to those who needed to see them like the primary care provider, hospital and surgeon. That meant there was a chance the films could be damaged or even lost enroute. It was also a lot slower. Digital mammograms are uploaded and viewable right away so that technologists can see if an image needs to be repeated before the patient leaves. Image quality is much better and everyone who needs a copy can get it right away.

It wasn’t just breast imaging that Janette helped improve; she also trained her eye on access to breast screening. Ensuring all British Columbians could get screened for breast cancer close to home with state of the art equipment, Janette led the implementation of three mobile digital mammography coaches into the provincial breast screening system. These coaches travel to rural and Indigenous communities to provide culturally safe screening services there.

Janette also helped launch BC’s Lung Screening Program last year, the first of its kind in Canada. Getting to work with the health authorities to create standards and guidelines for this new program has been particularly rewarding for her.

How did Janette accomplish all this? 

She says it was being willing to put up her hand and offer to take on new things. Sometimes it was outside of her area of expertise but that is how she learned and grew. It’s okay to make mistakes and to ask for support. Being willing to pitch in wherever she could supported her growth. And of course having great mentors.

She credits Lisa Kan who held her position before her, and Karim Karmali, past COO for BC Cancer, as part of the secret to her success. Lisa, who had a background in statistics and epidemiology, helped Janette understand how to deliver screening in an equitable way across the province, so that people have the same quality of care and experience no matter where in BC they live. Karim taught her about the business side of healthcare including contract development, funding and procurement.

Working in patient care, accreditation standards and now the overall operations of the screening program has led to a diverse and rewarding career. It’s the reason Janette recommends that people looking for a career path consider health care. It’s a great field because there are so many opportunities to work in different areas and grow throughout your work life. Plus it is incredibly rewarding.

Given all the change she’s seen, Janette is in a good position to predict the future of image-based screening. It will probably include AI and more advances in imaging. She is excited to hand over the reins to new people with new ideas when she takes a well-deserved retirement later this spring.  

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