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'Are they trading one life for another?' Cancer patients frustrated by COVID surgery delays

Last Updated Jan 4, 2021 at 7:02 pm EDT

As COVID-19 patients fill beds across Ontario, CityNews is hearing from cancer patients, their families and doctors saying vital surgeries are being postponed as hospitals struggle with the second wave.

“Are they trading one life for another?” asks cancer patient Cara Heitmann. She was diagnosed with breast cancer just before the pandemic hit. Doctors found six tumours, and she was first scheduled to undergo surgery in April. Three days before she was going to go in, it was postponed. She was finally able to have the surgery later in the year. By then, the cancer had spread.

“There was no expectation that cancer would have been anywhere other than in my breast. Once I finally had the surgery it had spread to my lymph node,” she says. “I can only assume that wait was the cause of the spread.”

One man, who wanted to remain anonymous, reached out to CityNews saying his wife is in a life-or-death situation. For the last five weeks she’s been waiting to be transferred to Toronto General Hospital to have a tumour removed from her kidney. That surgery has now been delayed four times. The couple is being told by doctors that it could be several more weeks before a bed becomes available.

“It’s frustrating, it’s terrifying,” says Heitmann. “My heart goes out to that person. It shouldn’t happen. What we don’t know is how the decisions are being made. I don’t think they’re being transparent, which is frustrating.”

Oncologist Dr. Timothy Hanna is also a cancer healthcare researcher. He says when it comes to treatment, timing is everything.

“Even for a delay of four weeks, the chance of death increased as delay increased,” says Hanna. “The chance of death only increased the longer the waits were, for the seven kinds of cancers we looked at.”

CityNews reached out to many hospitals and health networks in Toronto and Peel Region and did not get a firm count of how many are being postponed. All hospitals say cancer treatment is a top priority and some say they have not yet had to cancel surgeries.

In the aftermath of the first wave, researchers in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that for three months between March and June, Ontario postponed more than 148,000 procedures. On average, 11,400 surgeries were added to the backlog every single week. The study estimates that Ontario doctors would have to operate on more than 700 people a week for the next year and a half, just to get through the patients who were left waiting last spring.

The study also estimates Ontario hospitals would need to clear 265 beds, plus nine ICU beds, to have the resources to perform these surgeries. Ontario’s NDP opposition leader says the Ford government should have prepared the health system better for the second wave.

“To see that now we are exactly in that situation is a signal that this government has utterly failed to protect Ontarians from the impacts of COVID-19,” says Andrea Horwath. “Whether that’s the direct impact when it comes to actually getting virus and having to deal with that, or whether that’s the secondary impact.”