A shortage of oncologists is forcing doctors at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton to limit chemotherapy for gastrointestinal patients to those who would have a chance at full recovery if they received the treatment.
"We are short medical oncologists," said Dr. Peter Venner, the clinic's director of medical oncology.
"We are feeling the pressures that everyone is feeling within health care in Alberta or across Canada."
Doctors at the clinic have been forced to group their gastrointestinal patients into two categories: patients for whom chemotherapy would offer a good chance of being cured, and those whose cancer is so advanced that treatment would prolong their life, but not rid them of the disease.
Members of the latter group have been moved down the priority list, which affects about 13 patients.
"It's far, far from an ideal situation and I can only imagine the stress that it causes patients and their family," Venner said.
The clinic recently lost two oncologists. One left in January and another is on maternity leave until the fall. There was no one available to fill in and a new oncologist won't start working until August.
Cancer patient a 'writeoff,' husband says
The staff shortage limited the treatment options available for Ann Reynar of Leduc, Alta., according to her husband, Wave.
Reynar was diagnosed in early May with inoperable stage 4 colon cancer. After she received the diagnosis, the couple was told to expect a call the next week from someone at the Cross Cancer Institute about an appointment. No one ever called.
"We know now they never intended to contact us," Wave Reynar said. "We were a writeoff."
A palliative care nurse has since been arranged for his wife and her pain is now being managed with medication.
But Wave Reynar said he wishes health officials had been clearer about the situation sooner so they could have sought treatment in other provinces or countries while his wife was still well enough to travel.
"They've taken away all the options from us, of travel to other places, because she is too ill," he said.
Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman blames the current situation on a hiring freeze the Progressive Conservative government put in place last year.
"The government did a very, very poor job of planning for staffing and this is what happens," she said. "A year ago they said no more hiring, and here we are today with people not being able to get treatment because we don't have the oncologists to offer it."
The province is currently trying to recruit one or two new oncologists, which is challenging, since only 15 specialists graduate each year from Canadian medical schools, Alberta Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky said.
But the province is trying to sweeten the pot to attract candidates.
"Besides opportunities for practice and treatment, we offer first-class research and teaching and training capabilities," he said.