Their surgeries delayed, cancer patients stave off feelings of abandonment

Hospitals across the province have limited surgeries to the most urgent cases, to free up beds and staff to treat COVID-19 patients. But the delays are taking a psychological toll on anxious cancer patients.

'Cancer is hard to handle under normal circumstances. This is not normal,' says one patient

Marie Blouin was supposed to have a mastectomy and breast reconstruction at the beginning of April, but the procedure was cancelled due to COVID-19. (Submitted by Marie Blouin)

When Marie Blouin was first diagnosed with breast cancer last December, she was relieved it was detected early.

But after two operations, the cancer was still there.

In mid-March, her surgeon told her that cancer had invaded her right breast, and there was no choice left but to remove the breast.

"I was in shock," said Blouin, 53, who lives in Quebec City.

In tears, she drove home from Hôpital du Saint-Sacrement, the hospital where she's being treated, and began to prepare herself mentally for the next round of surgery.

Her mastectomy and breast reconstruction were tentatively scheduled for April 1, but there was no guarantee.

By then, hospitals across the province had already limited surgeries to the most urgent cases, to free up beds and staff to treat COVID-19 patients.

Still, it was a blow when her doctor phoned her at the end of March to tell her the surgery would not happen. Worse, he couldn't tell her when it would be rescheduled.

"Psychologically, it's very, very hard," said Blouin. "Cancer is hard to handle under normal circumstances. This is not normal. It's a lot of extra stress and anguish."

Delays causing stress

Blouin is not alone.

The Canadian Cancer Society said many patients have had their radiation or chemotherapy treatment or surgeries postponed due to COVID-19.

For patients with compromised immune systems, the decision to keep them out of the hospital is often in their best interest, said André Beaulieu, a spokesperson for the society's Quebec division. They can be more susceptible to complications if they are exposed to the virus, he said.

In some cases, the patient may be offered other options such as oral chemotherapy or hormone blockers to slow the cancer's growth.

When it comes to surgery, Beaulieu said, urgent, life-threatening cases are still being prioritized, but he acknowledged the delays are causing a lot of stress.

Earlier this month, Health Minister Danielle McCann said more beds would become available for more surgeries when the number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations starts to go down.

Beaulieu said that news is encouraging, but he hopes the province has a plan in place to deal with the backlog — not just for the coming weeks, but for months to come.

"We just want to make sure that cancer patients are not becoming collateral damage during this crisis," he said.

Long wait has gotten longer

But some patients have their doubts the health-care system will be ready anytime soon.

Pierre Gougeon, a cancer patient at the Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal (CHUM), said he was initially told he'd have his laparoscopic surgery within three months.

That was back in December, long before the COVID-19 crisis.

He was on standby for three and a half months. Finally the surgery to remove two cancerous nodules on his prostate was scheduled for the end of March.

Then it was cancelled due to COVID-19.

"I was not surprised, but very disappointed," said Gougeon, 57.
Pierre Gougeon has already been waiting since December for prostate cancer surgery. 'I feel like the system left me on the side and dropped me,' he says. (Submitted by Pierre Gougeon)

Eight months after his initial diagnosis, he's started to have symptoms he never had before, including burning and a pinching sensation he can feel in his legs.

His doctor told him if the pain gets worse, he can come in for more tests.

Gougeon inquired about having the surgery done privately, but it's not an option.

"I'm screwed," he said.

Yesterday, a hospital co-ordinator called to tell him there are cases more urgent than his.

That only made Gougeon feel more anxious.

The longer he waits, the more he worries his cancer will progress, making hormone therapy or radiation unavoidable.

"I feel like the system left me on the side and dropped me," said Gougeon.

Desire to move on

Blouin can relate to Gougeon's feeling of abandonment.

Single and isolated from her family because of COVID-19, Blouin says it's sometimes hard to cope with so much uncertainty.

Last week, her doctor asked her if she'd be willing to go on another list, this time, just for a mastectomy.

She'll have to wait to get breast reconstruction after the pandemic.

"My name is on the list. No date. No nothing," said Blouin. "He didn't want to make any promises."

Marie Blouin's mother, Françoise, left, died of breast cancer when she was 38. (Submitted by Marie Blouin)

Blouin's friends and family think she made the right call.

Although her cancer is localized and not considered a major emergency, Blouin's mother, Françoise, died of breast cancer when Blouin was 10 years old.

Blouin has started doing meditation and yoga on a regular basis and is getting some support from two women who had cancer last year.

But she's in a holding pattern.

She had hoped to be back at work by now and misses her colleagues.

She understands the health-care system has to focus on COVID-19, but she hopes the province understands the toll these delays are taking on cancer patients like herself.

"You have to understand that, psychologically, I am very tired. I am drained by all this stress. I want to put this behind me and be able to move on with my life."

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