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Whitehorse man says Stage 4 cancer could have been avoided if he had family doctor

A man in Whitehorse says he believes his nasopharyngeal cancer was first detected at advanced Stage 4 because he didn't have a family doctor.

Yukon Medical Association says it's not sure if territory suffers from doctor shortage

Jim Whelihan said he was diagnosed with cancer in 2017. (Steve Silva/CBC)

A man in Whitehorse says he believes his cancer was first detected at advanced Stage 4 because he didn't have a family doctor.

"As I have come to find out, I was probably less than a month away from ... writing up my last will," Jim Whelihan, 55, said in an interview in December.

Whelihan moved to Whitehorse in July 2016 and said he and his wife tried to get a family doctor at the time — but couldn't.

In early 2017, he started feeling run down, struggled to sleep, and his right eye started to protrude out of its socket, among other issues.

He went to a walk-in clinic around the end of April of that year. He said he was diagnosed with an ear infection, then given antibiotics.

"It didn't go away. The headaches were getting worse, and my vision was really starting to take a toll," Whelihan recounted.

I was probably less than a month away from ... writing up my last will.- Jim Whelihan, Whitehorse resident

Around the end of May, he went to a walk-in clinic again and was prescribed more antibiotics, but he didn't improve.

By mid-July, he went to the emergency room at Whitehorse General Hospital, where a doctor ordered a scan.

A tumour, about 6 cm in diameter, was found behind Whelihan's right eye.

Jim Whelihan underwent treatment for cancer that was found in 2017. (Submitted by Jim Whelihan)

He was ordered to fly to a Vancouver hospital that day for a biopsy. The next day, he said he learned he had advanced Stage 4 nasopharyngeal cancer.

Whelihan said an ear, nose, and throat specialist told him that the cancer could have been caught at Stage 1 if Whelihan had been seen by a qualified doctor earlier.

Number of full-time doctors 'difficult to pin down'

Welihan is now in recovery. But his struggle to find a family doctor is not unique.

In June 2012, according to the territory's health minister at the time, Yukon had just one family doctor for every 637 people. CBC News reported a doctor shortage in the territory multiple times that year.

Since then, the territory's population has grown by more than 5,000 people.

According to Yukon Medical Association (YMA) administrator Scott Wilson, as of Dec. 27, there are 61 practising family doctors in the territory — four more than in 2012.

But that doesn't mean all of them are practising full time.

It would have been seven radiation treatments instead of 35.- Jim Whelihan, on if his cancer had been detected earlier by a family doctor

"It is difficult to pin down the number ... A rough guess might be about 45," said Wilson in an email.

The Yukon government offered a different number. Pat Living, a spokesperson for Yukon's Department of Health and Social Services, said there are 68 family doctors practising in the territory.

Like the YMA, the department said it couldn't tell whether they were working full- or part-time hours. Family doctors can provide a number of services, so part of their time can be spent providing service in an emergency room, for example.

In an interview Nov. 1, Alex Poole, then-president of the YMA, said the association also doesn't have data on time spent away from family practice.

Doctors licensed in the Yukon must register with the territorial government, and registries obtained via an access-to-information request show dozens more doctors licensed to practise family medicine in the territory than either the territory or the YMA says are currently doing so.

The 2019-2020 registry included 210 names, an increase on the previous four years.

YMA not sure if there are enough doctors

Poole said he couldn't say whether there are enough family doctors in the territory to meet the needs of residents.

"We will know hopefully when we find the actual number of people who are looking for family doctors," he said.

Poole referenced a new find-a-family-doctor service, which launched on Nov. 13, by the Yukon government in partnership with the YMA. It's supposed to match people with family doctors accepting patients.

Dr. Alex Poole is the previous president of the Yukon Medical Association. (Steve Silva/CBC)

He said that program would help them determine the reasons why people are not able to get a family doctor.

Dr. Katharine Smart, elected in November to replace Poole, said that she echoed his thoughts.

As of Dec. 24, 15 physicians have registered with the find-a-family-doctor service, according to Living. Of the 535 people who signed up to be matched, 121 have been matched.

Before this service, the Health Department directed people to a phone line that would state in a pre-recorded message which clinics in the Whitehorse area had physicians accepting new patients.

Between September and November, several calls to the phone line returned the message that no clinics were currently accepting new patients.

Living also noted the government has "committed to staffing" a permanent, part-time physician recruitment officer, whose job is "to work to attract, recruit and retain physicians to Yukon."

'Getting my life back'

Since his diagnosis, Whelihan said he had to go through two cycles of chemotherapy and 35 sessions of radiation. He lost 70 lbs along with much of his strength.

"As soon as you get up to even to just wash dishes, it just takes a lot out of you," he said.

Whelihan said most of his friends and coworkers didn't have a family doctor, and instead used walk-in clinics or visited the emergency room when they needed to see one. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Whelihan hasn't been given the OK to go back to work since the cancer diagnosis, and he earns 60 per cent of his normal income.

"Our food bill, we kind of cut corners there," he said.

Whelihan estimated he's had to fly to Vancouver about 15 times since his diagnosis, spending about three months in Vancouver so far. The health department covered the flights and provided him with $75 a day while he was there, he said.

"A city like Vancouver, $75 doesn't get you very far," Whelihan said. "My Visa has really taken a beating."

Whelihan and his wife now have a family doctor: something he said he's been able to find everywhere he's lived before moving to Whitehorse.

"My current family doctor up here would have noticed some abnormalities ... He would have caught it a lot quicker," Whelihan said.

"It would have been seven radiation treatments instead of 35."

He said he still feels frustrated with the current health-care system's lack of access to family doctors — "It's, you know, almost 2020," he said — but Whelihan appreciates the new find-a-family-doctor service.

Whelian said he's now cancer-free, feeling better, and regaining weight.

If another checkup in Vancouver in February goes in his favour, he could be back to work soon —  "getting my life back, basically."

Clarifications

  • A previous subhead said the scale of the doctor shortage was "difficult to pin down." In fact, Scott Wilson said the number of full-time doctors was "difficult to pin down." The dates when CBC made several calls to the Health Department phone line was also clarified.
    Jan 07, 2020 1:07 PM CT

Corrections

  • CBC has removed a reference Whelihan made in a quote to "Stage 5" cancer. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, Stage 4 is the most advanced stage of nasopharyngeal cancer.
    Jan 06, 2020 12:39 PM CT

With files from John Last

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