Rural BC cancer patients decline inequities in health-care access

A BC couple estimate they’ve spent more than $10,000 driving back-and-forth from their home in Fort Nelson for cancer care

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In the nearly two years since Jamie Thompson first found a lump in her breast that was later diagnosed as cancer, the Fort Nelson mother estimates she and her husband Ron have spent more than $10,000 driving to-and-from their home to Dawson Creek and Fort St. John for cancer treatments.

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In addition to spending hundreds of dollars in gas for the four to five hour drive, they’ve spent hundreds more for hotel stays. Ron, a mechanic, has forfeited thousands in lost wages. It also means days away from their nine- and 13-year-old daughters.

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So when Jamie and Ron heard that the BC government would be covering the travel and accommodation costs of prostate and breast cancer patients who would receive radiation treatment at one of two clinics in Bellingham, Wash., starting May 29, they felt left behind.

“There’s jealousy and anger,” Jamie said. “But at the same time, not surprised or shocked,” she added, because residents of northern BC are used to inequities when it comes to health-care access.

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“Having cancer is stressful,” said the 38-year-old who works at a health food store. “I’m trying to live, I got two daughters. Like this is crazy stress on my own brain and body. So then you add the financial aspect to it and it goes like over the top.”

“It makes you mad just that there’s no help,” Ron said. “And then you hear, ‘Oh, we’re gonna send people across the border because it’s right there and we’re gonna pay their costs and stuff like that.’ Like, the people up here need help.”

The move to send up to 4,800 BC patients to the US over the next two years is an attempt to address the backlog in BC, which has one of the longest waits for radiation treatment in Canada. The province will cover all costs related to travel and accommodation, including paying for a support person to accompany the patient.

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Jamie’s radiation therapy will start in July in Prince George, an eight-hour drive south, which will keep her away from home for six weeks. She said she would be willing to go to Bellingham for treatment if that was an option.

“Of course I’d be willing to travel because right now I’m paying everything out-of-pocket. I don’t care how far I have to go.”

Handout photo of Jamie Thompson and family.  LR: Daughter,Parker (13), Jamie Thompson, Ron Thompson, daughter, Lily (9).
Handout photo of Jamie Thompson and family. LR: Daughter,Parker (13), Jamie Thompson, Ron Thompson, daughter, Lily (9). Photo by Tara Neufeld /Submitted

Asked who will be selected to travel to Washington state, BC Cancer chief medical officer Dr. Kim Nguyen Chi told Postmedia News last week that the cancer agency will be targeting breast and prostate cancer patients who can receive radiation therapy over five consecutive days to limit the time away from home. Patients will also be triaged based on how long they’ve been waiting for treatment.

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BC United MLA Tom Shypitka, who represents the riding of Kootenay East, said there’s been no transparency as to who will be selected for treatment in Bellingham.

“How are they picking the winners and losers?” he asked. “I’m gonna guess it’s not heavily weighted (to patients) from the Kootenays. I’m going to take that wild guess it’s going to be a lot of people from Surrey and from the Lower Mainland. We’re just left out in the woods here. We’re basically all alone and it doesn’t feel good.”

Shypitka is frustrated that the BC NDP government didn’t negotiate a cross-border treatment option with Alberta, considering the proximity between Interior residents and the neighboring province.

Chi told Postmedia News last week: “I made some inquiries and we made inquiries to Alberta but … other provinces are … they’re also facing constraints. It’d be great to stay within Canada, but at the same time going to Bellingham is also much closer for people in BC, particularly in the Fraser Valley.”

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However, a spokesperson for Alberta Health on Wednesday said “there have been no conversations on this issue to date.”

Asked last week why the province didn’t opt ​​to send patients to Alberta, Health Minister Adrian Dix said: “We serve way more Albertans than they serve British Columbians.”

Sending people to the US is also a more expensive option. It will cost the province $12,277 for a patient receiving five fractions of radiation therapy compared to $3,854 in BC, not including travel and accommodation, according to the Health Ministry.

“To add insult to injury, the BC taxpayer is picking up the dime for this transportation down to Bellingham, for the treatment, for an assistant or a caregiver to go along with them, all to support private health care down in the States,” Shypitka said.

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Paul Adams, executive director of the BC Rural Health Network, which advocates for improved health care in rural parts of the province, said he often hears stories like the Thompsons’, families who dry up their savings just to pay for necessary health services.

The BC NDP has still not fulfilled their 2020 election promise to open a cancer care center in Kamloops, Adams said.

“We have one oncology center (in Prince George) providing radiation for the entire northern portion of the province.”

To address the disparities in rural and remote parts of BC, Dix has pointed to the province’s 10-year, $440 million cancer plan that includes funding to expand cancer care centers in Nanaimo, Surrey, Burnaby and Kamloops.

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Adams wants to see the $440 million “rapidly deployed.”

A failure to do that, he said, would mean “if you are in the rural communities, you’re going to be further disadvantaged.”

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