Janeway Nurse, Jan Humber, on Children Living with Cancer

Jan Humber says if she had it to do all over again, she would. Jan is an Oncology nurse who’s worked with children at the Janeway Children’s Hospital for all but five of her 39 year career.

When I was young, my mom said I should go into nursing with the nuns at St. Clare’s. They ran the nursing school at that time. And I thought, why not? The nuns were strict and I was a bit of a rebel so I probably needed that discipline.

Luckily the pediatrics instructor I had was fabulous. She loved children and she inspired me go into pediatrics. So when I graduated, I went straight to the Janeway. My mom had passed away with cancer by this time, so I chose oncology as my specialty.

Jan Humber, pediatrics nurse at the Janeway Children’s Health and Rehabilitation Centre.

Jan is also a certified chemotherapy administration nurse on the Janeway Medicine Unit. Most days she’s giving chemo, but she also cares for children with many other diseases.

When people say it must be a sad place to work, my blood pressure goes up. It’s not sad. There is hope, there is laughter and there is caring. And that term – suffering from cancer – which was an acceptable term when I first started work, is also inaccurate. These children are living with cancer.

So how does Jan help these children live with their disease?

We try to make their lives as normal as possible. If available, we put them in a room with an extra bed for their mom and dad or a brother or sister. We tell them to bring in their own comforter, and their own special pictures for the walls.

Our playroom is a huge deal. They watch movies, have popcorn and play with other kids. We even have school here. Teachers come to bedside and in some cases, kids take their tests and exams while in the hospital. If children are admitted for a longer duration, they are sometimes allowed out on a pass, just to get a break. They might go to a movie or hockey game. So we’ll try to schedule their treatment around it.

What about children who are long-term patients?

Sometimes children are with us on the Medicine Unit for extended periods of time and we get quite close to them. You get to know them so well – you hang out with them. One little girl used to call me Nanny Jan and I have a little boy right now who calls me his girlfriend. They know I have a motorcycle; they know I’m a grandmother. They really do become family. There are children I’ll never forget and I still stay in touch with. 

Jan Humber providing compassionate care to one of her patients.

How do you deal with not so happy times?

The reality is, we do lose children. When that happens, as it did recently, a debriefing is offered for those in the child’s circle of care. When we lose a child, pediatricians, residents, clerks, nurses, social workers and music therapists often attend the debriefing and sometimes it is standing room only. Tears are shed as we share stories about that child. Many of us spend sleepless nights thinking about a child and wondering how the family is doing. This is the guts of health care.

Losing a child is the sad part, but at the same time, you have other children who are fighting – and overcoming – this disease. There are so many stories waiting to be success stories. 

How have things changed since you first started your career?

When I first started almost 40 years ago, a cancer diagnosis for a child could be a death sentence, but with today’s advances in technology, the survival rates have improved dramatically. The outlook for most of our patients is quite positive.

In fact, I’m thrilled with the medical advances that I’ve been a part of. There are lots of new drugs coming out. We work closely with the Children’s Oncology Group, which can involve the use of experimental drugs. But one of the best treatments we have right now is Immunotherapy. It works by using substances made by the body or in a laboratory that improve or restore immune system function. It actually boosts the body’s natural defenses to fight the cancer. And it’s working.

People are also more involved in their own care – they want to know. And it’s something we encourage. We teach the parents, and the child if they’re of age, what’s important.

For example, sometimes parents can overindulge sick children. But we tell them, if you treat your child differently than you did before the diagnosis, he is going to seriously worry. “Like, mom and dad are really weird. Why are they giving me all this candy? Am I dying?” You have the same child. He has an illness but you parent him the same way you would before he was sick.

This is such an important time in the lives of these families. It’s just really special to be part of it. Because I’ve done it for so long, I know a lot about what they may be going through or what they might be worrying about. I believe I can make a difference.


This story was written by Robyn Lush, communications specialist with Eastern Health.

13 responses to “Janeway Nurse, Jan Humber, on Children Living with Cancer

  1. Jan was one of the many nurses I had when I was a patient at the old janeway. I was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 10 and spent 5 years going back and forth there. I got to know many of them there really well but Jan was one I’ll never forget. She would let me paint her nails all the time and spend most evenings I was feeling well at the nurses station pretending I was doing charts and registering patients. I always loved when she was working ad my mom did to, she many those long days and nights easier to get through and I love her for that. She was truly made to be who she is today and I can’t thank her enough!

  2. Jan is a wonderful nurse, she was great to all of our family while Megan was receiving treatments, I remember her well, she always took time to answer my many questions. We trusted her completely, she was a part of a wonderful team.

  3. This is so touching . Anyone can care for someone but it’s the care you put in caring that matters 💜Just beautiful

  4. Fabulous story of the dedication and love that the families and children get at the Janeway. You definitely have to be a very special person to work in this area. Thank you for all you do as a team to help our children in NL battle this terrible disease. Knowing that there are advancements in treatment gives hope to many. Beautiful article

  5. Jan was one of my sisters nurses who she loved so well, unfortunately Courtney passed away but the care and love Jan showed for her was heartwarming.

  6. Jan was one of the nurses who looked after my son when he had cancer at 17.I loved the way she always was herself around our family. We would joke to each other to lessen the tension of the nightmare we were going through. Jan treated the children with respect always but was the first one to let you know when needed a little attitude adjustment. The good thing now is that when you meet Jan, the conversation is about everyday topics that is of course after she makes sure Robert is doing fine . Jan is part of a great team that is doing great work for all of us. Jan you have always made a difference in ways you can not believe.

  7. Jan is a great nurse for sure! She is a very caring nurse! We managed to have a few good laughs with her even though the time was tough! She and the rest of the Janeway staff made us feel like home, like we were always surrounded by family! I can’t thank the Janeway enough for what they had done for my little boy, at the time he was diagnosed with Luekemia he was just 11 weeks old! But with the help of the wonderful staff, and the best kids hospital, 6 years later and I still have my little boy beside me!

  8. Jan was one of Danny Burden’s nurse , she was loving and sweet to him . He was just 15 when the ilness got the best of him, but we will always remember her and so many others who treated us soooooo good.

  9. Jan,
    you have made such a difference in so many lives,
    your professionalism, dedication and love of the children and your job is always so evident
    the above e-mails speak for themselves.
    such a great article!!

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