'Not ready to lie down and die': Cancer patient battles Transport Canada

Ken Harding has terminal cancer but while he and his doctor agree he can keep working as a cook on the Bell Island ferries, Transport Canada disagrees.

Ken Harding wants to return to work on ferry service, but federal department won't give him clearance

Ken Harding is appealing a decision barring him from working as a cook on the Bell Island ferries. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Ken Harding can drive a motorcycle but he can't scramble an egg, at least not on the job that he hoped to return to this spring.

Since 2014 Harding has worked part-time as a cook aboard the ferries on the Bell Island run.

But in May, he got a letter from Transport Canada declaring him unfit to work, citing his use of medical marijuana and the treatment he's undergoing for end stage cancer.

"I'm still not ready to lie down and die," he told CBC News. "I want to work, you need to work, it makes you sane, it gives you a reason to get up every morning, brush yourself off."

Ken Harding can only hope and wait on an appeal with Transport Canada to get his job back as a cook on the Bell Island ferries. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Harding was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 2013.

He had been working as a cook on an offshore supply boat, but his chemotherapy treatment made the the 30 days on, 30 days off schedule impractical.

It's playing havoc on my mind. Probably worse than what cancer is doing.- Ken Harding

The ferry job was an good compromise.

"It's an ideal job for me. It's very, very easy for me to do this job compared to other jobs that I done. Basically it's almost ease-back I guess," Harding said.

"A man in my situation battling what I'm battling it's a great spot for me to work. Leaving Bell Island ferry it's 15 minutes across. If I have an issue I'm another 20 minutes drive from the Health Sciences cancer clinic."

Despite a terminal cancer diagnosis, Ken Harding can ride a motorcycle. He's also driving a cab while he tries to get his ferry job back. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

A doctor examined him and declared him fit to work, as long as he stayed close to shore. But when he had to renew his papers this year, he ran into a snag.

'I can't believe it's happening to me'

Documentation sent to Transport Canada by Harding's doctor said he was using medical marijuana and taking nivolumab, which is used to treat inoperable cancer.

In May, the federal department sent him a letter saying he is temporarily unfit to hold a marine medical certificate.

In part it reads, "Marijuana is prohibited in the marine environment and therefore your use of marijuana, although prescribed, is a significant concern. It is also concerning that you are actively undergoing treatment for end stage cancer."

​The department told CBC News that it can't comment on specific cases.

But in an email to CBC News, a spokesperson wrote that "physicians are required to report to Transport Canada any conditions which may have an impact on marine safety or an individual's ability to perform safety-critical duties in a seafaring environment."

Harding said that was "outrageous," saying he's quite capable of doing his job despite his cancer.

"It's bewildering to me, it's mind blowing that in this day and age we're living in a free country and they decided to take my right to work based on cancer treatment."

Ken Harding wants to be active and says working helps keep his mind occupied. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Ironically, Harding said the provincial department of transportation called him Thursday to ask if he had straightened out his paperwork. They wanted him to work, he said.

Transport Canada has agreed to hear an appeal of the original decision, but no date has yet been set.

That leaves Harding on shore at least for now, and frustrated.

"It's playing havoc on my mind. Probably worse than what cancer is doing. It's a situation like cancer that's out of my hands and I can't believe it's happening to me or anybody else."


Todd O'Brien

CBC News

Todd O'Brien is a journalist working with CBC's bureau in St. John's.