Patients call for better cancer care

The B.C. Cancer Agency has cutback access to the city's only medical oncologist, prompting calls for change.

Jocelyn Pedersen

Jocelyn Pedersen

Nanaimo-area residents are calling for better cancer services north of the Malahat, after the B.C. Cancer Agency scaled back access to the city’s only medical oncologist.

The B.C Cancer Agency moved Dr. Carole Most, the only medical oncologist based north of Victoria, from Nanaimo to its Vancouver Island Centre in Victoria last October for four days a week.

The cancer agency says the move was necessary for Most to collaborate with other oncologists and become a specialist, and that the shuffle has not affected cancer care for Nanaimo patients. The medical oncologist is still available by phone and video conference and is taking patients at the city’s community cancer clinic once a week. There are also two general practitioners of oncology still at the clinic.

But residents say asking patients to discuss their battle with cancer via video conference, wait for an appointment or drive south to Victoria for in-person visits is an erosion of service. They question the rationale behind centralizing the Island’s cancer specialists in Victoria, which now has 15 full-time equivalent oncologists, pointing out that driving south can add stress and could be a problem if a disaster prevented people from crossing the Malahat.

They are calling for the return of the oncologist five days a week and greater community cancer services for residents living between Duncan and Port Hardy.

“We were totally shocked and all of us were in tears when [the oncologist] told us about this, having to go to Victoria,” said cancer patient Jocelyn Pedersen. “I mean, to ask for one doctor to be able to stay a week instead of [going to] Victoria isn’t much when you have [15] in Victoria. We are not asking for the moon or anything.”

The cancer clinic at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital saw a  medical oncologist hired three years ago. Patient visits increased from almost 3,000 to 3,500 by 2012, prompting a $1.8 million clinic renovation. In the 2013-13 fiscal year, the clinic reports 7,034 patient visits, including 3,421 face-to-face visits with a physician.

Now, in-person visits to the oncologist in Nanaimo have been scaled back  and patients want to see that move reversed.

Bette Ainsworth, a three-time cancer survivor and clinic volunteer, said the loss of in-person access is unfair to patients and she hears complaints in the chemotherapy room in which she volunteers.

“We’d really like to have at least one,” Ainsworth said. “I think really [we] require two or three to handle the traffic that we get but even if we have one, we’d all feel better.”

Reg Hawkes, a Nanoose Bay resident with colon cancer, said his oncologist is a champion for his care. He doesn’t want to communicate by video.

“If you have cancer and you are losing the battle, do you really want to sit and talk to a microphone and look at a TV set to talk to your doctor? It’s not really warm,” he said.

Hawkes wants more services for patients outside the province’s capital including a cancer centre for the central and North  Island.

“We are all paying taxes and they are all dumping it into the Victoria clinic. It’s a gorgeous place. It’s a palace. And up here we don’t even have one oncologist [full-time],” he said.

In an e-mail, a spokesperson for the B.C. Cancer Agency acknowledged change can be upsetting for patients.

There are no plans to build a second cancer centre on Vancouver Island.