Flying to Toronto for cancer treatment because of staff shortage not an easy decision, says N.L. woman

Newfoundland and Labrador has temporarily partnered with the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto to allow residents to go to Ontario for treatment, but Mary Kelly decided to decline that option.

Loss of radiation treatment unit is 'a massive failure,' says cancer scientist

A smiling middle aged woman with short light brown hair and glasses.
Mary Kelly of Grand Falls-Windsor needs radiation therapy for her breast cancer. She's unable to get the care she needs in Newfoundland and Labrador right now due to a lack of staff at the treatment centre in St. John's. (Submitted by Mary Kelly)

With a staffing shortage at the Dr. H. Bliss Murphy Cancer Centre in St. John's, the provincial government is offering patients treatment in Toronto, but a woman battling breast cancer in central Newfoundland says that isn't an easy decision.

Mary Kelly of Grand Falls-Windsor has breast cancer and had surgery in August. She needs radiation therapy and was told by her radiation oncologist the treatment would provide the most benefit during a 16-week window following the surgery.

Her first appointment was scheduled for Thursday, but Kelly said she received a call from the Department of Health saying her appointment would be moved to Nov. 29 — which would put it outside the 16-week window.

"I have been informed that essentially they are day-to-day right now with their scheduling, because they don't know when someone else may quit because the staff shortage is so severe," Kelly said Tuesday.

A shortage in staff led to the closure of one of four radiation treatment units at the cancer centre in St. John's.

The provincial government has temporarily partnered with the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto to send patients there for treatment, but Kelly decided to decline that option.

"I have other factors which are preventing me from going to Toronto," Kelly said.

"However, if I'm delayed much further here, I will probably consider it and say I'll take my chances with going to Toronto having my treatment. Because I can't rely on the system here, because of staff shortages."

Kelly said she worries about what could happen if her care is further delayed.

"You're always left with the question that if, down the road, my cancer does return, could it have been because I was delayed in my followup treatment?" she said. "That is something I will have to live with on a go-forward basis, all of these what-ifs."

A woman with grey hair down to her shoulders sits at a desk in her university office. She's wearing a black shirt with dark red glasses.
Sevtap Savas, a cancer scientist and molecular geneticist at Memorial University, was shocked by the closure of the radiation unit. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

In a statement to CBC News, the provincial Health Department said three people have been accepted for treatment in Toronto as part of the partnership so far. Patients are sent to Toronto for more advanced radiation techniques than are available in Newfoundland and Labrador, said the statement.

'A massive failure'

Sevtap Savas, a cancer scientist at Memorial University, said the loss of the unit is a major hurdle for those in need of effective cancer care. She said it also means a heavier workload on the staff who remain.

"What is the consequences of this? I believe they're already overworking," she said. "I think it's a massive failure."

Savas said travel to Toronto would likely be a stressor for people already going through a difficult time, as it would take them away from their support network in Newfoundland and Labrador.

A grey sign on a hospital building that reads "Dr. H. Bliss Murphy Cancer Centre."
The Dr. H. Bliss Murphy Cancer Centre in St. John's houses four radiation treatment units. One of those units is closed due to a lack of staff. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

"I think we really need to think about the possible negative impacts and try to minimize them as much as possible," she said.

Savas hopes the province will bring in more staff quickly so the quality of care doesn't drop.

Health Minister Tom Osborne said recruitment efforts are ongoing and called the closure of the unit a "human resource issue."

"The challenging part is that every province in the country, and almost every country globally, has a shortage of health-care professionals. So, you know, it is a competition to get these individuals," Osborne said. "Hopefully very soon we'll be able to recruit for those positions and start doing these therapies here in the province again.

As someone in need of care in Newfoundland, Kelly says she hopes that happens sooner rather than later.

"It's one thing to have all of these machines. But if you have no staff to run them, it doesn't matter what infrastructure you have in place," she said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


  • A source in a previous version of this story said the closure of the radiation treatment unit was the result of a shortage of radiation oncologists. In fact, the shortage is the result of a shortage of radiation therapists.
    Nov 16, 2022 2:00 PM NT


  • A previous version of this story attributed a statement about the number of patients sent to Toronto to Eastern Health. In fact, the information came from the provincial Health Department.
    Nov 16, 2022 3:00 PM NT

With files from David Newell and Jeremy Eaton