July 20, 2001 Halifax Herald

Cancellation of cancer surgeries lacked compassion

I'll start by relating a one-paragraph version of the cancer diagnosis - which I first discussed in my April 9, 1999, column entitled "Cancer: Hospitalization care must be fully funded" -- that enables me to describe with some certainty the negative effect it has on patients and families: In March 1997, my wife Patricia was diagnosed with breast cancer. Treatment mandated a mastectomy followed by chemotherapy. During chemo treatment, Pat suffered all the traumatizing side effects that comes with it, including baldness and extreme nausea. For several months, the Cancer Center was a regular stop.

However, suffering the pain has had its reward. Pat is now a four-year survivor whose prognosis for cancer-free status gets better with each passing year. This happy result can be credited to the compassionate and excellent critical pre- and post-op medical care prescribed by a very competent Dr. Higgens. We are eternally grateful to her and to the other care-givers at the Victoria General Hospital's Cancer Centre for all they've done for us over the past four years. The most important thing I've learned from this experience is that the key to a person increasing chances for a successful outcome is to accept that professional health care-givers have your best interests at heart when prescribing treatment, and can be counted upon to do their utmost to assure that you receive the best care available while receiving it. Trust them!

For those who haven't had the misfortune to personally experience a cancer diagnosis intrusion into their lives, I'll try to explain, in general terms, how badly it affects most people victimized by it (for the purpose of this column, I'll restrict commentary to cancer cases where surgery is necessary). For beginners, without fear of contradiction, I'll state emphatically that the terrible news is extremely traumatizing for the patient and their immediate family.

Initially, almost in panic, the worst scenarios come to mind: Where to turn? What to do? Then, in most cases - this is human nature at its best - everybody soon rallies around and with determination, they undertake the chore of educating themselves about the course of the terrifying illness and how to deal with it. Caring doctors, nurses and other support staff lay out battle plans for the victim and family. The panic subsides, but the dread is still there.

Then begins the preparations for surgery. Blood tests, scans, etc., are attended to. With all the preliminaries out of the way, the date is set to remove the threatening tumour. The patient steels and prepares him/herself for the procedure - hoping desperately that the surgeon won't discover, when operating, that the cancer is incurable. This is the normal course of events to this point.

Now for the abnormal. On the eve of the dreaded day, attributable to a looming health care labor crisis, the incredible happens. With a lack of compassion and little appreciation of the tremendous traumatic strain that the patient and his/her family are under, the operation is cancelled until further notice because of the crisis. One wonders if the people who make this kind of momentous decision have the use of some magic formula that enables them to instruct the patient's tumour to stop growing and spreading while staff and employer problems are ironed out.

Of course, we know they don't. As any person who has been closely touched by cancer can tell you, they are extremely hard things to eradicate from the body and they worry a person about reoccurrence for years afterwards. They are like unwanted weeds in a garden. If the roots are not all removed, they come back with a vengeance. When this happens, survival chances go down dramatically.

Thus, when I read in the June 19 issue of this paper that the before mentioned had happened to Heather McGinnis, a breast cancer patient who had spent weeks mentally preparing herself for the ordeal, I saw red. My sense of outrage grew considerably when I learned on June 30 that fourteen other cancer surgeries had been cancelled. Such, except for a societal catastrophe, is indefensible. The intense anxiety that these patients and their families must have experienced with this uncertainty hanging over their heads had to be very traumatizing. For them, an unknown future was made even more questionable.

We Canadians like to think of ourselves as citizens of a civilized society that reviles torture and embraces compassion. After learning about the cancellation of these operations, one wonders about the truth of such beliefs.

To put the whole thing into perspective, critical health care services are a human right that cannot be overridden in a civilized society for anything less than dire circumstances. Thus, the rights of government, employees and their unions must take a back seat to providing first-class care and services for cancer and other patients whose lives are threatened with potentially fatal health problems. I reiterate, cancers won't stop growing and spreading, nor dying hearts, kidneys, etc., mend, while disputes are ironed out in the health care business.

To ensure that critical health care services are never again disrupted in Canada by labour disputes, the country must adopt an enlightened new approach to resolve such problems. Good conscience dictates that cancer care and other critical care services necessary for the preservation of human life be removed from the fray and be held forever above it.

Daniel N. Paul


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