Calgary

Cancer patient waits months for PET-CT scans due to lack of FDG

A Calgary woman with cancer has waited anxiously for months to find out whether she needs more chemotherapy because her scans have been postponed due to a lack of a radioactive substance — a shortage that has affected more than two hundred patients provincewide.

AHS apologises for delays due to lack of radioactive substance used to detect cancer

Erica Malanchuk says valuable time is wasting while she waits for results of a PET scan that got rescheduled 3 times because of an equipment malfunction. (Colleen Underwood/CBC News)

A Calgary woman with cancer has waited anxiously for months to find out whether she needs more chemotherapy because her PET-CT scans have been postponed due to a lack of a radioactive substance — a shortage that has affected more than two hundred patients provincewide.

​Erica Malanchuk is fighting stage three cervical cancer, which has spread to her lymph nodes. The scan, which uses a radioactive substance called fluorodeoxyglucose or FDG, to identify the presence of cancer, will tell her doctors whether the previous six rounds of chemotherapy worked.

She's been waiting since August, when her first appointment was cancelled, and has been bumped twice since. 

The problem, at least in part? Repeated breakdowns of a machine called a particle accelerator called a cyclotron, which is based in Edmonton and usually produces enough of the FDG daily to supply hospitals in Calgary and Edmonton.

"What frustrates me is that if my scans come back and say, yes, my cancer has spread? In those two months, could we have done something? Could we have done more chemo or surgery to stop it?" said Malanchuk.

More than 200 patients rescheduled 

Malanchuk finally got her scan on Tuesday after some of the FDG was flown in from Toronto.

She said she was told the shipment wasn't large enough and "only four people were getting their scan today."

Alberta Health Services says the cyclotron had a mechanical breakdown on Sept. 28, causing an eight-day shutdown.

AHS ordered the FDG in from other provinces, including Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia, but it wasn't enough for all the patients requiring PET-CT scans.  

About 180 patients had to be rescheduled.

The cyclotron broke down again on Oct. 14.

Sixty-nine patients have been affected by the latest breakdown — 29 in Edmonton and 40 from Calgary.

AHS apologizes, promises quick fix

On Wednesday, AHS said it was confident the machine would be fixed within the week. In the meantime, it's bringing in more FDG from other provinces and said that when the machine is fixed, it will schedule scans on weekends to catch up.

We want to take this time to sincerely apologize to those patients and their families for angst this has caused and any inconvenience in delays with the result of their exams being rescheduled.- Mauro   Chies of AHS

"We want to take this time to sincerely apologize to those patients and their families for angst this has caused and any inconvenience in delays with the result of their exams being rescheduled," Mauro Chies, AHS Chief Program Officer of Clinical Support Services, told reporters at a press conference.

The failure means AHS can perform approximately 13 of the 19 scheduled daily scans in Calgary. In Edmonton, it is able to perform 23 scans a day instead of 30.

"We are contacting all affected patients and have already begun rescheduling appointments, some receiving their scans today," said an AHS spokesperson by email.

The spokesperson goes on to say cyclotron failures are "very rare" and when care is impacted "AHS takes all actions to ensure patients receive timely and reliable services."

'Do or die product'

Malanchuk questions whether there should be more than one cyclotron providing FDG for Alberta's two major cities.

"It's not a product we might need, this is a do or die product, basically. The longer we wait, the longer this disease spreads in people, so to me it's something that needs to be done right away."

Malanchuk expects to find out the results of her scan — and whether she is cancer free or will need more treatment— on Nov 4.

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