A South Surrey woman said B.C. Cancer denied her essential support services after she elected to pay privately for chemotherapy in Bellingham.
As a result, Sheila Vicic has been left to be the “quarterback of my own care.”
Vicic, who has Stage 3 colon cancer, expects to pay at least US$10,000 for chemotherapy at the North Cascade Cancer Center in Bellingham, Wash. The 60-year-old cashed in some of her retirement savings to fund the treatment because she had lost faith in the B.C. system to treat her cancer quickly enough.
“I was literally picturing the cancer running rampant in my body,” said Vicic, thinking back to late September when she was told it would likely be November before she could begin chemotherapy in B.C. Vicic said when an oncologist from North Cascade contacted her within two days of her initial query, she knew she had made the right decision.
“What are my RRSPs worth if I don’t live through this?”
However, Vicic was stunned to find out she was “dumped” by B.C. Cancer because of her decision to seek care in the U.S. She was told she wouldn’t be eligible for other health services like access to a dietitian that she said is essential for those with gastrointestinal cancer.
She had asked her oncologist if she could continue her infusion chemotherapy in Bellingham but take her oral chemotherapy in Canada. The oral chemotherapy costs US$3,600 per cycle in the States.
When the oncologist said no, Vicic asked why.
“She felt there were ‘too many cooks in the kitchen.’ And I said, ‘I’m not a casserole. This is my life we’re talking about.’ ”
Vicic found out last week from her dietitian that she was discharged from the B.C. Cancer system, disconnecting her from the ancillary support services.
“The dietitian told me she could not provide care for me because I was discharged,” she said. “I was so gobsmacked by how the system was failing me. I think our socially funded system should be doing the wraparound care.”
Vicic has filed a complaint with B.C. Cancer about her discharge and the impact it’s had on her continuing care.
B.C. Cancer didn’t return a request for comment by deadline about their policy on discharging patients who receive cancer treatment privately and whether that prevents them from accessing non-chemo-related health services.
Vicic, who is on leave from her job working for an NGO that does international disaster relief, said she feels like she’s running logistics on her own cancer care.
“Right now I’m the disaster. We’ve got a problem. How are we going to mitigate the damage?”
Vicic’s cancer was discovered Aug. 21 after a routine colonoscopy. She asked if she would be referred to an oncologist but was told that couldn’t happen until after the surgery and followup pathology report to determine how much of the cancer had been removed.
She had colon resection surgery on Sept. 18 to remove part of her colon.
A Sept. 28 pathology report showed Stage 3 colon cancer.
“I felt right from the get-go the system put me five weeks behind in the waiting list.”
Vicic referred herself to North Cascade on Oct. 4 and by Oct. 6 was meeting with an oncologist.
She started her first of four rounds of chemo on Oct. 17. Her last round will be Dec. 19, followed by 14 days of oral chemo. Vicic said if she had stayed in the B.C. Cancer system, she would have been waiting until November or possibly later.
Vicic expected her chemo to last six months but, instead, she chose a more aggressive form of chemo that spanned three months.
It leaves her feeling “shredded” and “horrible.”
“This particular chemotherapy, you don’t lose your hair. So everyone’s like, ‘Oh, you look great,’ ” she said.” But literally, I’m destroyed on the inside. It’s destroying indiscriminately cells everywhere.”
Vicic, who has been travelling to Bellingham with each of her three daughters and her husband, has been impressed with the quality of care at North Cascade.
“I think our clinicians can’t provide the type of care that I’m getting in Bellingham,” said Vicic, describing it as “stunning in its efficiency, compassion and resource load.”
For example, she gets the same infusion nurse during every round of chemotherapy, which she said is key to building a relationship.
Vicic said she feels terrible for the overworked cancer nurses and doctors in B.C. who are unable to provide the highest standard of care as the system buckles under the weight of high demand.
“I think they’re gifted and talented people in a terrible system and the system is sucking up resources. It’s destroying our clinicians and our patients.”
North Cascade is one of two clinics providing radiation therapy for British Columbians with breast and prostate cancer under a program announced by B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix in May.
Vicic’s experience comparing Bellingham’s services to the overstretched B.C. system was echoed by another cancer patient, Mia Toth. She asked her oncologist to refer her to the publicly funded Bellingham program because she was concerned about the lengthy wait for radiation therapy.
Toth received radiation treatment for breast cancer at the PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center and said she was disheartened to see the number of B.C. doctors and nurses working in the U.S. because of better pay and working conditions.
Vicic said she’s lucky to have a vibrant support network in Bellingham because she rows competitively with the Whatcom Rowing Association.
Her goal is to row on New Year’s Day and leave cancer behind in 2023.
On Tuesday, she found out that a Signatera tumour DNA blood test came back negative, which means her cancer cells have been reduced to undetectable levels.
“I haven’t had good news this whole journey,” she said. “I needed some good news.”
Vicic knows she’s privileged to be able to pay out-of-pocket and she feels for those who don’t have that option.
“I know that there’s people with my exact same diagnosis, and they’re just waiting.”
Vicic is the latest person to speak out about the decision to seek private treatment in the U.S. after losing faith in B.C.’s system.
Kristin Logan, a 43-year-old Campbell River woman diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer, ended up receiving chemo in Washington state after she was told to expect a three- to four-month wait for treatment in B.C. Logan has medical coverage because she is a dual citizen and U.S. military veteran.
Allison Ducluzeau, a Victoria mother of two, ended up paying US$200,000 out-of-pocket for surgery in the U.S. after a B.C. Cancer oncologist told her she wasn’t a candidate for the procedure that saved her life.
Vicic said despite her negative experience with B.C. Cancer, she wants to be part of the solution to improving cancer care for future patients.
“I don’t want to be proof of the problem. I want to be part of the solution,” she said. “I want to see the systemic changes that delivers better health care to every British Columbian.”
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