Vaughn Palmer: Too many people dying on B.C.’s cancer-care wait lists

Opinion: The NDP likes to cite improving statistics, but peoples’ stories are overwhelming the official narrative

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VICTORIA — A Victoria woman, Samia Saikali, is diagnosed with stomach cancer. She needs chemotherapy urgently but is relegated to a waiting list.

Weeks later, when the treatment finally starts, it is too late. She writes birthday cards for her six grandchildren — for each of them, for each year until they turn 18 — and opts for medically assisted death.

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She dies on June 22 of this year, aged 67.

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Another Victoria resident, Dan Quayle, has an aggressive form of esophageal cancer. He languishes for weeks in hospital for the chemo that never comes.

Finally, when the pain is so great he can’t eat, can’t walk, he tells his life partner: “I just can’t do it any more” and opts for medically assisted death.

She comforts him for one last time while he passes on Nov. 24. He is just 52.

Then there’s Saanich resident Allison Ducluzeau, stricken with a rare form of abdominal cancer. She opts for state-of-the-art treatment at a hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, treatment she was denied here in B.C.

The 12 hours on the operating table costs her $205,000. She raises the money through online fundraising and by cashing in an inheritance.

But the 57-year-old lives to tell the tale, returning to work as a realtor and marrying her partner of nine years on a beach in Hawaii Nov. 14 with her children in attendance.

Campbell River resident Kristin Logan, 43, is looking at a wait of three to four months for treatment for Stage 4 ovarian cancer here in B.C. Instead, as a dual citizen and U.S. military veteran, she is getting treated in Washington state.

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South Surrey resident Sheila Vicic has Stage 3 colon cancer. Discouraged by the waiting times here in B.C., she cashes in her retirement savings to cover an anticipated cost in excess of $10,000 U.S. for chemo at a clinic in Bellingham, Washington.

“What are my RRSPs worth if I don’t live through this?” says the 60-year-old mother of three.

Those horror stories and others have been reported by a number of B.C. news outlets recently.

Katie DeRosa, who wrote up several cases for Postmedia, says that after each was published, she was contacted by others — patients, families, survivors — with similar stories to tell.

Together these stories amount to a shocking indictment of the state of cancer care in B.C., one that the New Democrats are struggling to rationalize.

Health Minister Adrian Dix is defending the government record with statistics, as he usually does.

He notes the New Democrats have been sending hundreds of patients to Bellingham for radiation therapy, covering all the costs. As for chemotherapy, 300 additional patients are receiving treatment in B.C. this year over last.

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The province has recently hired 61 new cancer doctors, 28 new radiation therapists. The New Democrats have added almost 40,000 health care workers — doctors, nurses, caregivers of every kind — since taking office in 2017.

“We’re setting records almost every week in the number of surgeries we do in the health care system,” Dix told Richard Zussman of Global TV recently. “We’ve gone ahead of most of the other provinces in these matters.”

But as even he admits: “I don’t think people care when they need surgery what the waiting times are in New Brunswick. They care what they are in Comox. They care what they are in Campbell River. They care what they are in Kelowna.”

Likewise with the minister’s exhausting briefings on the state of the health care system. Dix has the statistics on his side. It’s the anecdotes that are undermining his case.

The health minister doesn’t comment on individual cases, a matter of policy that is nothing if not convenient.

But it doesn’t take many stories about patients shelling out tens of thousands of dollars of their own money for care in the U.S. — or stories about people choosing death because they can’t endure the pain of waiting — to swamp the impact of all the graphs and charts in the minister’s technical briefings.

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There is something drastically wrong with the state of cancer care in B.C., as Premier David Eby has pretty much conceded of late.

“Any British Columbian that faces a cancer diagnosis, it’s probably the scariest moment they’re going to face in their lives,” he said last week.

“They have a right to expect that when they reach out to the health-care system, they’re going to get the support that they need.”

Too often, he concedes, the support isn’t there.

“I am not satisfied with where we are on cancer care in the province.”

Earlier this month, Eby vowed that: “Any wait time for an individual who is facing a cancer diagnosis is unacceptable for them and their families and for me.”

Unacceptable? In what way? It is not as if he’s firing anyone for these shortcomings or changing direction on a course the New Democrats have been following for seven years.

The premier expects the public to be patient until results improve.

In the meantime, some patients will be waiting, suffering and, in a genuinely unacceptable number of cases, dying.

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