British Columbia

Cancer patients in B.C. waiting months rather than weeks for treatment

Cancer patients in B.C. are waiting longer than they should for treatment due to serious staffing shortages throughout the province.

B.C. Cancer says staffing shortage at the heart of the delays

Cancer patients in B.C. are waiting longer than ideal for treatments such as chemotherapy. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images)

This story is part of Situation Critical, a series from CBC British Columbia reporting on the barriers people in this province face in accessing timely and appropriate health care.

Cancer patients in B.C. are waiting longer than they should for treatment, according to the chief medical officer for B.C. Cancer. 

Dr. Kim Nguyen Chi, a medical oncologist and head of B.C. Cancer, said patients are already impatient as they grapple with their cancer diagnosis.

"Waiting even a day is challenging for people," he told On the Island host Gregor Craigie.

"From a patient perspective, they've been waiting longer than that, right? They've had symptoms before that, they've had tests before that and so on. So the entire cancer journey can be very difficult as they proceed through the diagnosis and treatment."

Dr. Chris Booth, who's based in Ontario and is the Canada Research Chair for Population Cancer Care, said colleagues in B.C. are telling him that wait times to see an oncologist who can prescribe cancer treatment are exceeding the ideal maximum, which is about four weeks. 

"It sounds like it's not uncommon for patients to have to wait months to see an oncologist rather than weeks," he said.

It is expected that 31,000 British Columbians will be diagnosed with cancer in 2022, according to B.C. Cancer; nearly half of British Columbians will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, the province says.

Treatments for cancer often include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and often more than one form of treatment is used. Medical oncologists specialize in chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, biological therapy and targeted therapy. Radiation oncologists prescribe radiation treatment.

Anyone in critical need is typically triaged and gets an appointment within a couple of days, Nguyen Chi said.

Nguyen Chi said staffing is at the heart of the problem; dozens of new medical oncologist positions were added in B.C. in the past year, meanwhile existing oncologists have retired or left their jobs for other reasons, meaning there are a lot of vacancies to fill.

B.C. is competing with other provinces and parts of the world for oncologists, which Nguyen Chi said has been difficult given the high cost of living in the province and the difficulty international doctors face getting licensed when they choose to practise here. 

B.C. Cancer says there are 19 open oncologist positions, including both medical and radiation oncologists, across the province right now.

But he said B.C. Cancer is trying to recruit new oncologists from across the country and the world. 

"We have our eyes on a number of folks to bring in," he said.

In the meantime, doctors like Nguyen Chi are travelling to different parts of the province to offer care. He travels from Vancouver to Victoria once a week to care for patients on Vancouver Island, where he treats four patients during each visit.

There is also an effort to hire more nurses and other health-care providers to help fill the gaps, Nguyen Chi said. The Ministry of Health recently set aside $41 million, which will go toward recruiting nurses, pharmacists, radiation therapists and oncologists.

In 2020, the province announced a 10-year cancer plan that included new cancer centres in Burnaby and Surrey, and expansions of existing cancer centres. 

"It's distressing, of course, for the patient and their family and it's distressing for [physicians]," Nguyen Chi said. 

"That's why we're bringing in all these extra resources and trying to help out with that as much as possible. Ideally, we'd like to see people as soon as possible."

Gregor Craigie spoke with Dr. Kim Nguyen Chi, the chief Medical Officer for B.C. Cancer.


Courtney Dickson

Broadcast and Digital Journalist

Courtney Dickson is a journalist working in Vancouver, B.C. Email her at with story tips.

With files from On the Island, Daybreak South and The Early Edition


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