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Alberta Cancer Foundation


Spring 2014 Edition of Leap Magazine

Leap Magazine - Spring 2014

Helping cancer patients put their best face forward


Dr. Jana Rieger is having a Hamlet moment. She stands, one arm outstretched, cradling a model of a human skull in her palm, unconsciously mimicking the pose of the tragic Shakespearean Dane. At any moment you almost expect her to break into iambic pentameter starting with: “Alas poor Yorick!”

But this isn’t a rehearsal hall and Rieger isn’t an actor, she’s the director of research at the Institute for Reconstructive Sciences in Medicine (iRSM) in Edmonton’s Misericordia Hospital. So when she speaks, her words are more surprising than Hamlet’s.

“Here in our Medical Modeling Research Laboratory, we can create a replica of a patient’s skull – and this ‘patient’ just happens to be me.” Rieger gestures toward shelves where other eyeless skulls stare back, then points to one ghostly white form near the end of a row of mannequin-style heads. “That one’s me too,” she says with a slight smile. “I think everyone who works in this lab is getting tired of me staring at them.”

There are more marvels on the shelves behind the glass, notably computer-generated facial plastic “skin,” remarkably realistic in its look and feel, and custom-made templates that surgeons use as guides for reconstructing jawbones. It’s all made possible by a combination of advanced imaging technology such as CT scans, computer modelling and 3-D printing.

These innovations will make a world of difference to patients who lose sections of their skull or face to head and neck cancers. At iRSM, patients are also treated for congenital abnormalities due to trauma, but Rieger says that about 80 per cent require treatment due to cancer. After life-saving treatment, many patients require reconstructive surgery to restore their appearance and the essential functions that most of us consider natural, like the ability to speak well enough to be understood, to chew well enough to eat more than mush and to do something as reflexive as swallowing. Patients who lose parts of their mouth or tongue lose that ability; for some drinking a glass of water comes with the fear of aspiration and possible pneumonia.




Why Leap? Because 16,000 Albertans will be newly diagnosed with cancer this year. For them, one step at a time just isn't fast enough. At the Alberta Cancer Foundation, we make just one promise to donors -- progress. With your help, we believe we can progress in leaps and bounds.







Bejoy Thomas

“It's about understanding who the patient is and how to make them comfortable.”