Clear diagnosis

🕔Jun 07, 2006

Outside Sandra Lucas’s house in a quiet Prince George neighbourhood, the sky has turned grey and drops of rain streak the windows. She pours boiling water into a teapot and slices banana bread, getting ready to settle in for an evening with her husband Scot and their two dogs.

She’s recovering from cancer treatment and surgery, but the illness has left its mark. Her short grey hair is slowly growing back after chemotherapy. There are lumps under her upper arms, where her body’s natural fluid is collecting, unable to find the lymph nodes that surgeons removed. And her blue T-shirt lies flat against her chest, a constant reminder of the cancer that stole both of her breasts.

After spending five weeks away from home, receiving radiation treatment in Vancouver, she says she’s enjoying the little things she used to take for granted. “It’s just so nice to be back home, with my husband and my son and friends,” she says.

Lucas, 58, is just one of thousands of cancer patients from Northern BC who are forced to travel to Vancouver, Kelowna or Edmonton for radiation treatment. Patients can, however, receive chemotherapy and surgery at Northern hospitals.

For years, people in the Prince George area have been hoping the provincial government will open a comprehensive cancer-treatment centre in the city. One woman, who lost her husband to cancer, collected 16,000 signatures from people in Northern BC supporting the idea.

Health officials and politicians are not ignoring the groundswell of support. Last November, Northern Health released a report, acknowledging that a radiation-treatment facility was feasible in Prince George, as part of a cancer-care centre.
It was a turnaround from an earlier report, which concluded that Northern BC’s population of 300,000 wasn’t large enough.

There were, however, conditions attached.

Northern Health stressed there must be wide-spread support across Northern BC, not just from people in Prince George. It also pointed out that a facility would not be feasible unless radiation oncologists and therapists could be recruited, as well as other specialists involved in cancer care.

Premier Gordon Campbell then appointed two prominent community leaders from Northern BC—Dr. Charles Jago, president of the University of Northern B-C (although set to retire in June), and Northern Health Board chair Jeff Burghardt—to lead consultation meetings with cancer patients and the general public during the spring.

Sandra Lucas and her husband, Scot Affleck, say they were anxious to speak out at the first meeting, which was held in Prince George. The story they shared echoed the ordeal faced by other patients.

Lucas spent five weeks alone in Vancouver while receiving radiation treatment, because her husband couldn’t afford to stop working. “I considered it a stint in prison. And I figured, well, I’ll do 37 days and then I’ll be able get out. So I had this huge calendar beside my bed, and I’d mark off every night,” she says.

The loneliness of being away from home, she recalls, was compounded by the squeeze on the couple’s finances. She was forced to ask for help from the Canadian Cancer Society, which covered 75 per cent of her airfare and accommodation, but she still ended up using her credit card to finance part of it.

Although she missed her husband and grown son, Lucas had a lot of company from Northern BC—other cancer patients who traveled from Prince George, Smithers, and the Peace region, among other places, so they could receive radiation treatment.

“It was a revolving door. A lot of people from Prince George; a lot of people from the North,” she says.

The reaction from the meetings wasn’t all positive, though. During the two-month-long consultation process, which stopped in 17 communities across the North, some skepticism emerged about the idea of building a cancer centre in Prince George. In places like Terrace and Prince Rupert, a day’s drive from Prince George, some people wondered how a treatment facility so far away would benefit them.

Judy Rea, a cancer-care nurse in Prince Rupert, points out that it’s easier for patients to hop on a one-hour flight to Vancouver instead of traveling long distances. “They’re hit with this diagnosis of cancer. They may be in chemotherapy treatment already; their immune systems are down and they’re not feeling well. A long drive anywhere is just not good for anybody.”

Residents in Prince Rupert wonder whether building a cancer centre in Prince George would siphon health-care resources from elsewhere in the North, she adds.

On the other side of the province, in the Peace region, many patients are referred across the border to Edmonton for radiation treatment. But Shannon Zazzi, president of the Canadian Cancer Society branch in Fort St. John, says there’s strong support for a facility in Prince George, since it’s a couple of hours closer by road, and many patients have family in the area. Others in the Peace region, though, point out that winter driving along the Pine Pass, between Fort St. John and Prince George, can be treacherous.

Burghardt and Jago have to sift through this huge range of opinion. “It’s a profound effect when you listen to the trauma and the different experiences that people have endured,” says Burghardt, who heard from people at public meetings as well as smaller focus groups with patients and their families.

Overall, he says most people were eager to see radiation-treatment included in a cancer-care centre in Prince George. “There’s a huge amount of support for that. We will reflect that in the report,” he says. He adds that other factors, such as recruitment of specialists and funding, also have to considered.

A report, with recommendations, is expected by the end of June; then the final decision is in government’s hands. If a cancer centre is approved, Burkhardt says it could be 10 years before the first patients walk through the door.

For Sandra Lucas’s husband, the solution is simple: “I think it should be a no-brainer, a done deal. It should happen. It’s just a matter of doing it.They have all that money for the Olympics and they have budget surpluses in Ottawa. There’s no reason they can’t have a cancer clinic up here.”

For now, Lucas says she’s feeling strong and eager to return to her job at the Real Canadian Superstore. Her fight’s not over yet, though. Her doctor won’t pronounce her cancer-free for another five years, during which time she’s on a regimen of cancer-fighting drugs and must monitor her health closely.

She dreads the thought of having to get treatment far from home again, she says. “Right now, I’m to the point that if they say I have more cancer, I don’t want any more treatment. And of course the family is saying ‘You can’t do that, you have to go on with life.’”

“But I’ve been through so much. And when you’re so sick from chemo, and you’ve had radiation and your skin has burned and peeled, and you’ve had your surgery, and you have infections and things keep going wrong, you wonder, ‘Should I, or shouldn’t I?’”

“When the time comes, I’ll make the decision, but I just hope and pray nothing does happen.”