British Columbia

Cancer treatment cut for some patients on Haida Gwaii

Northern Health says it can't find a pharmacy technician to mix the specialized IV infusions.

Queen Charlotte mayor says cut could have implications for Haida culture

Despite intensive recruitment efforts, Northern Health says it can't find a pharmacy technician, the health professional required to mix specialized IV infusions. (Gerry Broome/The Associated Press)

Cancer patients are set to lose intravenous chemotherapy treatment on Haida Gwaii next month.

It means some patients will have to take an eight-hour ferry ride or an expensive flight for ongoing treatment.

Northern Health blames a staff shortage for the service cut.

'It's very concerning to us'

Despite intensive recruitment efforts, the health authority says it can't find a pharmacy technician, the health professional required to mix specialized IV infusions.

Intravenous chemo drugs can't be mixed elsewhere and transported to Haida Gwaii because of safety issues and the drugs' shelf life, according to Northern Health. 

"It's very concerning to us, but we don't have alternative safe chemotherapy delivery at this point," said Dr. Jaco Fourie, Northern Health's northwest medical director and the medical lead for Northern Health Cancer Care.

The Haida Gwaii Hospital, X̱aayda Gwaay Ngaaysdll Naay in the Haida language, has operated B.C.'s most remote cancer facility for years. (Contributed/Northern Health )

"It's very difficult to recruit health professionals to more remote areas," said Fourie. "Haida Gwaii will always be somewhat fragile."

"It's very unfortunate. Yes, patients will have to travel," Fourie said. 

Starting June 21, cancer patients will have to travel off island, to places like Prince Rupert, Terrace, and Vancouver, to get IV chemotherapy treatment.

At the moment, only a handful of patients will lose local IV chemo treatment.

Fears Haida elders will be forced to leave for treatment 

But Village of Queen Charlotte Mayor Kris Olsen says those patients include Haida elders from neighbouring Skidegate, who are badly needed in their community.

Haida elders, including some of the last remaining Haida language speakers, are among the cancer patients who will have to leave Haida Gwaii for IV chemotherapy, said the mayor of the Village of Queen Charlotte. (Mark Forsythe/CBC)

"Some of the elders that use [this treatment] are some of the last remaining language speakers," said Olsen. "We're trying to bring back the language because there's only a handful of speakers left. If they're going to live where the chemo is being administered ... it's just tragic."

Northern Health says it's working with the B.C. Cancer Agency to figure out where patients will travel for treatment, and how often they will need to leave home.

"It's always difficult to maintain the more remote cancer delivery service," said Fourie. "We've had closures across the province for similar reasons. I don't think there's any bad guys here." 

For years, the Haida Gwaii Hospital has operated B.C.'s most remote cancer facility. Family doctors trained in oncology also help patients across the main island.

Northern Health says most cancer patients will still be able to get help on Haida Gwaii, including symptom management and oral chemotherapy. 

Starting June 21, cancer patients on Haida Gwaii will have to travel off island, to places like Prince Rupert, Terrace, and Vancouver to get IV chemotherapy treatment. (Google Maps)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary and the Adrienne Clarkson Diversity Award. Based in Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry and the Paralympics.

With files from Maryse Zeidler

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