Sask. cancer patient frustrated, frightened after Alberta surgery cancelled amid COVID-19 surge

Just a day before Sharon Durham was supposed to have surgery in Edmonton to treat her cancer, she was informed that it was being cancelled, as Alberta’s health-care system struggles to cope with a surge of COVID-19 cases.

The woman from Wynyard, Sask. — a small town about 150 kilometres northeast of Regina — was already en route to Edmonton, and had made a stop at a store in Saskatoon when she got a phone call with the bad news.

She instantly burst into tears. 

“We turned around and headed home. I called the office the next day and they told me it was cancelled because I’m from out of province,” Durham, 54, told CBC Radio’s The Morning Edition.

Health-care systems are strained in both Alberta and Saskatchewan, with the western provinces seeing record COVID-19 hospitalizations and intensive care capacity stretched beyond normal limits.

The Canadian Medical Association has called for lockdowns in the two provinces, citing a state of crisis. 

Saskatchewan is slowing down and pausing non-critical and elective services, and has temporarily halted its organ donation program, a ripple effect of the province’s fourth wave of COVID-19.

Alberta has also seen widespread cancellations of non-essential surgeries and procedures, as Alberta Health Services works to free up space and front-line staff to care for patients with COVID-19.

Frustration with unvaccinated people

On Wednesday, Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman told journalists that the majority of people currently being treated in hospitals or testing positive for COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

“It’s frustrating because people not getting vaccinated are taking my spot,” Durham said.

“I don’t know why they get priority over me, when people like us who have been vaccinated are trying our best to help society, and then you just get kicked down.”

Durham is now waiting for her fifth surgery to combat her aggressive cancer.

She had two procedures done in Saskatchewan and was then referred to Dr. Hadi Seikaly — a top Edmonton surgeon — as her level of cancer was out of scope for treatment in Saskatchewan.

In Alberta, “they removed the cancer from my nose — they took quite a bit of the inside of my nose out. They took my top palate out. I have a tooth on each side left,” she said.

Durham is waiting to get her fifth surgery to combat the aggressive cancer. Past treatment involved removing part of her nose. (Submitted by Sharon Durham)

A specific technique for dental rehabilitation called the Alberta reconstruction technique — which was co-developed by Dr. Seikaly — was used in her surgical reconstruction, she said, which involved putting a screw into her nasal bridge “to keep my nose up, just to keep me looking half kind of pretty,” she said.

But during a return visit to Seikaly in March, she was told the screw had to come out due to inflammation, and that she could expect a call for follow-up surgery in Alberta in two to three weeks. 

When three months passed without a call, she contacted the surgeon’s office, but was told they were not performing surgeries for out-of-province patients in Alberta at that point.

Durham finally met with the Edmonton doctor again on Aug. 9.

“He looks at me and he goes, ‘Yeah, we need to get that out of you right now.… I think there’s probably cancer in there,’ and there is,” she said.

‘Now I’m even more scared’

Durham was admitted to hospital in Alberta on Aug. 26 for another procedure, and had another scheduled for this week, with the aggressive cancer now spread to her cribriform plate — a  plate between the eyes that goes underneath the brain. 

“This morning I woke up with my eyes bloodshot, so now I’m even more scared. It’s got to come out — it’s just a matter of time. If I don’t get the surgery, it’s going to be going into my brain and my eye,” Durham said.

She hopes that the next surgery will be the final one to remove the invasive cancer, and that it does not “creep around” before that. 

She is very glad to have found a “capable and smart surgeon,” who has also been advocating to have her procedure expedited, but says she is stuck in a limbo waiting every day for her phone to ring with a call from her Edmonton doctor.

“It’s really scary and I’ve become a very angry person,” she said with tears in her eyes.

“It’s awful because I’m not an angry person, and I’ve become so angry with the unvaccinated and with our government.”

Sharon Durham is shown in this with her husband, Chris Halldorson, before she was diagnosed with cancer. Her latest medical procedure in Alberta was cancelled earlier this week, just a day before she was supposed to have the surgery. ‘It’s frustrating because people not getting vaccinated [against COVID-19] are taking my spot,’ she says. (Submitted by Sharon Durham)

She’s left many messages with her MLA and was told by the health ministry that there is nothing they can do. 

“I have no voice in the health-care system.… I just need a voice. I’m just one little person on a farm in Saskatchewan. What can I do?” she said.

Durham said the only message she has is for more people to get vaccinated so that her surgery does not get cancelled again, as the cancer keeps spreading. 

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