April 9, 1999 Halifax Herald

Cancer: hospitalization, care must be fully funded

My introduction to how badly cancer can ravish a human's body came when I was in my mid-teens and living in Boston during the 1950s. A young-adult friend, married and the mother of two young boys, would go from approximately 150 lbs to 80 during the course of her illness.

After the dreaded diagnosis, Margaret put up a valiant fight for her life; but a few years later, the disease became terminal. She then was hospitalized for many months prior to being called home. What troubled me most about the untimely death, besides the loss of a good friend, was the excruciating suffering she was put through by those who were charged with the responsibility of easing her pain. I don't believe it was done with malicious intent; it was what society expected at that time - extend life at all costs.

During our last visit, when Margaret had tubes carrying drips and what-have-you inserted into several parts of her body, she used these unforgettable words to describe her pain and tribulations: "Danny, why are they doing this to me? There is no hope, I'm suffering terribly. Yet they do everything to keep me alive. Do they enjoy torturing me?" Thankfully, the Great Spirit intervened and ended it a few days later.

With the passage of almost five decades since my first traumatic encounter with the disease, cancer treatment procedures have improved tremendously and cure rates have shot upward. And, very important, society has become more humane. It no longer strives to keep terminally ill patients alive for what, in the past, seemed to be for the spectacle of seeing them suffer agonizingly for a few more weeks or months. Today, most non-medical professional members of Canadian society and professionals alike have accepted that without due care, there comes a time when efforts to sustain life in hopeless cases border on, if not surpasses, torture.

Since Margaret's death, I've seen a great many other healthy people of all ages struck down by the disease. Two friends, a husband and wife, Chief Peter Perro and Sofia, died on the same day from it. The rich, the poor, the mighty, the powerless are victims; it has no preference. And, whether caused by the toxic mess that industry spews into our living environment or other factors, it has become more common and widespread. I've seen stats that showed the odds of women contracting breast cancer during their lifetimes have risen over the past ten years from 1 in 20 to 1 in 8.

Yet many of us act as if we're immune to the disease. It seems, although its surrounds us, that we live in a cocoon believing that it can't happen to us.

Well, it does happen to us. In struck our immediate family back in March of 1997. Pat, my wife, discovering a lump in her breast arranged to visit her doctor on April 3 for a consultation. A biopsy was quickly scheduled. Within a few weeks, the results were in and we found ourselves faced with a very traumatizing reality: breast cancer.

The diagnosis quickly introduced us to some of the overworked, but very competent medical staff at the Victoria General's Cancer Centre. Even with their hugh workload, these dedicated people came through for us in a big way. By the end of May, the operation was over and a period of other extensive tests was under way. Then came chemotherapy. Almost two years later, with some of the best follow-up care available, the prospects for a complete cure seem within reach. We are eternally grateful to the dedicated doctors, nurses and other hospital staff for the compassionate care they provided!

During this period, I asked a doctor how soon should an operable cancer be removed. The answer, as I expected, because a cancer doesn't stop growing and spreading once diagnosed, was simple and concise: "Immediately." Because of factors such as the availability of operating rooms and other essentials needed to proceed with such procedures, this is seldom possible. However, far to often, staff shortage alone is responsible for undue delays.

This greatly distresses me. Its inexcusable for governments not to make adequate funding available to enable hospitals to have the wherewithal to hire and retain full complements of professional staff to treat, as expeditiously as humanly possible, victims of dreaded cancer. Itís a disease that tends, if left untreated, to quickly become terminal.

Perhaps if members of Parliament and legislatures would take some time and spend a few days visiting hospital cancer centres and cancer wards, the purse strings would quickly loosen. Another factor that would grab their attention and promote positive action would be the adoption by hospitals of a treatment policy that would strictly forbid preferential treatment for the empowered.

During the dozen or so times I accompanied my wife to the VG Cancer Centre, I've seen etched on people's faces every emotion from high hope to utter despair. I had no notion that so many were stricken with the disease. Patient waiting rooms were always full.

Hats off to the wonderful folks who have dedicated their lives to providing tender, loving care to cancer patients. Letís insist that governments take a cue from their humanitarian example and forthwith make budgetary provisions that assure that every hospital cancer centre in this country is fully funded and staffed!

Daniel N. Paul


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