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Written By

Katherine Kokkonen


College of Healthcare Sciences

Publish Date

10 May 2019

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Cancer care in rural Australia

Going through cancer treatment is a harrowing process that is made even more difficult when you live in rural and remote Australia. The challenges patients and healthcare professionals face spurred JCU’s Dr Tracey Ahern to examine the role of breast care nurses — and in the process find a model that could help other cancer patients.

Dr Tracey Ahern still remembers the words that sparked her into action.

“The further someone lives from a metropolitan city, the more likely they are to die from cancer.”

Having lived and worked in the North Queensland town of Ayr, the statement hit pretty close to home.

“I was from a rural area and I thought that this is so unfair,” she says. “It sparked my interest in the area of cancer research. Because I was a registered nurse, I wanted to research nurses and I was interested in exploring how they support women with breast cancer and how that could then be applied elsewhere.”

Tracey heard the statement at a conference with Cancer Council Queensland many years ago. Since then she has been exploring the role of breast care nurses in Australia and how women in rural and remote areas benefit from their support. Her research was made up of three smaller studies, which produced some surprising results.

“When I did the study, women in remote and very remote locations were significantly more likely to use a breast care nurse for support,” Tracey says. “I wasn’t expecting to find such a difference between them and women in metropolitan areas.”

Tracey also found that women who had the support of a breast care nurse reported significantly lower unmet needs and a higher sense of self-efficacy compared to women who did not access a breast care nurse.

“Just having that one person who they can refer to and rely on really helps to decrease their unmet needs,” she says.

“To have that central person also increases their belief in themselves and their ability to look after themselves. I could see all along while doing the research that breast care nurses were really valued by the women who they cared for.”
Dr Tracey Ahern

Tracey praises the McGrath Foundation for their work in raising money to fund breast care nurses around Australia. She says the value that breast care nurses bring to women should be replicated so that other patients, such as those suffering from other forms of cancer, can benefit.

“We’re doing well with breast cancer and we do have these nurses for support,” Tracey says. “I do feel these models of care can be applied to other people with cancer who don’t have access to these models of support.”

Woman undergoing a mammogram
Nurse contacting colleagues through telehealth
Telehealth services could assist rural and remote breast care nurses connect to colleagues and feel less isolated.

Maintaining support

Support should not be a one-way street and Tracey is mindful of the need to ensure breast care nurses, specifically those working in geographically isolated areas, are cared for in what can be a difficult and isolating role.

“Telehealth services could be used by breast care nurses when they are in remote areas to link them to other health professionals,” she says. “They might at times feel isolated in their role, so it’s important they have the support of other breast care nurses because the work they do is really important.”

Tracey’s passion for rural and remote healthcare will fuel her next study, which will focus on the surveillance of woman who are identified as being at a high risk of breast cancer in rural and remote areas. Driving her to continue researching is the desire to make a difference on the ground for health professionals.

“I hope that some of the research I’ve done can help improve practice and improve outcomes,” she says. “I keep going just knowing even the small things can help.”

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Dr Tracey Ahern


Tracey Ahern is a lecturer in Nursing at JCU. Tracey’s research interests began as she became curious about nursing models of care such as Breast Care Nurses, Nurse Practitioners and Nurse Navigators, and the support they provide while undertaking these roles.

Residing in a rural area, Tracey also developed a keen interest in research examining the disparities in healthcare experienced by people living in rural and remote areas. These interests became the catalyst for her PhD research which focused on Australian Breast Care Nurses and the support they provide women with breast cancer in urban, rural and remote areas. Her work as a lecturer in Nursing, predominantly in the Master of Nursing (Online), has sparked an interest in research associated with online learning and teaching.

Tracey is currently working on a project to explore the experience of academic staff teaching 100% online in postgraduate nursing courses in Australia. She is also working on a multidisciplinary project examining psychosocial predictors of compassion fatigue and burnout in the healthcare and education sectors. Another project she is involved in has studied the roles of students in nursing and students in midwifery across six North Queensland hospitals and the relationship of these roles to student learning.