Alta. woman who had surgery delayed now has terminal cancer, experts worry about ‘substantial backlog’

EDMONTON –

As Alberta grapples with a surgical backlog, one family received the news that after a necessary medical procedure was pushed back because of the pandemic, now no more treatment options remain.

On Thursday, Alberta’s health minister said that the backlog of surgeries caused by cancellations due to the pandemic now sits at around 81,600.

Suzanne Marney described to CTV News Edmonton how her mother, Anne LeBlanc, fought aggressive liver cancer for 10 years. LeBlanc, 76, had her cancer procedure delayed in October with no new date scheduled. She just found out her disease is no longer treatable.

‘SHE WAS ON THE STRETCHER’

A routine MRI in August showed that one liver tumour had come back after being previously radiated.

Marney said her mother was scheduled for surgery to remove the growth in her liver on Oct. 5. Active cases and admissions soared by September, forcing Alberta Health Services to redeploy medical staff to respond to COVID-19 patients.

A few days before, LeBlanc received another MRI.

“This time, it showed not one tumour but several,” Marney said. “Which was different for mom because she always had one tumour that just kept coming back. Now she has multiple tumours.”

LeBlanc was informed on the day of her surgery, as she was being wheeled around the hospital, that her needed procedure was cancelled as there would be no ICU bed available for her post-operation.

“She was all prepped for surgery. She was laying on the stretcher, IVs in place — literally just outside the door in the hallway leading to the OR,” Marney said.

“A nurse came in and said, ‘Anne, I am so terribly sorry, but your surgery has been cancelled,” she added. “Mom got sent home.”

Doctors reassured LeBlanc she remained high on the priority list to undergo her medical procedure.

“No one exactly knew when that was going to happen,” Marney said.

Two months later, LeBlanc visited her oncologist on Friday. Her disease had progressed to the point no treatment options were left, Marney said.

“So the doctor,” Marney added, “told mom to go home and enjoy the rest of her time with her family, which would only be about three to six months.”

‘INCREDIBLY ANGRY’

When the virus first struck, Alberta’s surgery waitlist was approximately 68,000. According to the province, it rose to 77,000 during the first wave, retreated back to 68,000 until the fourth wave. At least 15,000 surgeries were cancelled due to that wave, the government says.

“I’m incredibly angry at our provincial government,” Marney said, adding that the province should have taken better action to keep ICU admissions lower.

“There was no ICU bed? Like why isn’t there an ICU bed,” she added.

“I asked myself how can Jason Kenney and his UCP colleagues go to sleep at night knowing that people are dying because of the decisions that he is making.”

‘STUBBORN OLD GOAT’

Marney says her mother remains in high spirits, despite the unfavourable prognosis.

“My mom, I call her a stubborn old goat. She is so positive. Her mindset is such that she will fight,” Marney said. “She is just incredible.

“Her silver lining is that if this is it, if this is her time, then she is going to eat all the chocolate and candy that she wants. She is going to, maybe, have a coffee with some Bailey’s in it.”

NOT AN ISOLATED INCIDENT

Dr. Khara Sauro, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s department of community health sciences, says experts are still studying the impacts postponed surgeries have had on Albertans.

Sauro recently completed a study on surgical procedure cancellations’ impact during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Approximately 20 to 30 per cent of surgeries were cancelled in the province at that time, Sauro said, with cancer procedures largely unaffected.

The second and third waves of the pandemic saw few surgery cancellations in Alberta overall, outside of localized staffing issues at certain facilities.

The fourth wave saw the most significant impact on surgeries, Sauro added, with almost 60 to 70 per cent of surgeries cancelled or delayed.

“The magnitude of the problem and the impact that, that’s had on patients’ physical health and cancer progression is really unknown at this point,” she said.

Sauro noted that a preliminary Ontario study shows that as surgeries were first postponed early in the pandemic, many patients came back for treatment with more advanced stages of cancer than before.

‘SUBSTANTIAL BACKLOG’

She says LeBlanc’s story will not likely be an isolated incident.

“It is a substantial backlog,” Sauro said.

“I think the positive news is,” she added, “the backlog seems to be stopping. So that number isn’t increasing. But that being said, the number is also not decreasing right away either.”

While many are discussing the backlog’s impact on patients, Sauro said many health-care professionals are also distressed over the news.

“To know that they maybe could have done something and not been able to because of constraints around them, not because of them,” she said, “is absolutely heartbreaking.”

While Marney says since sharing her story on social media, many Albertans have reached out for support, others have shared similar experiences.

“It just hurts my heart to also read messages from so many other Albertans, and Canadians for that matter, who have family and friends and even themselves where this exact same situation is happening,” Marney said. “It shouldn’t be happening.”

Health Minister Jason Copping said approximately 290,000 surgeries a year were completed in Alberta pre-pandemic. For Copping, the focus will now be to get the backlog of medical procedures down to the level it was.

“This appears at this point in time to be the peak,” he said Thursday. “As long as we keep COVID under control, we can start to work the list down from here.

“That is going to be a major job, make no mistake, but … it’s doable with the support of the teams of physicians and staff who have worked so hard with their patients over the past 21 months.”

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Carlyle Fiset and The Canadian Press

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