Nova Scotia

Yarmouth meeting to consider creation of long-awaited radiation unit

A meeting in Yarmouth today will be perhaps the most important step in determining the future of cancer care options in the seaside community.

Meeting follows a year of lobbying to bring enhanced cancer services to the region

A meeting today in Yarmouth will consider the possibility of bringing radiation therapy to that part of the province. (Robert Short/CBC)

A meeting in Yarmouth today will be perhaps the most important step in determining if there will be an expansion of cancer care options in the seaside community.

The day-long meeting with 15 people, including patient advisors, health care professionals and administrators, will examine the possibility of a setting up a radiation unit at Yarmouth Regional Hospital.

Dr. Drew Bethune, medical director of the province's cancer care program, said the "deliberative engagement session" is the product of months and months of planning. It will consider options including creation of a radiotherapy unit, ways to make travel easier and lessen its consequences for patients, and remaining with the status quo.

Focused community lobby effort

The meeting follows a targeted and deliberate lobbying effort that started in the community about a year ago.

One of the people pushing the effort was Sandy Dennis, a town councillor who was diagnosed with cancer in February 2017. Dennis began trying to raise awareness about the challenges people face having to travel three hours to Halifax for radiation (chemotherapy treatment is available in Yarmouth).

Dennis said people quickly jumped on board with the effort and it wasn't long before an online group with thousands of members began an organized and concerted lobby effort. Since then, the health authority became engaged, 943 surveys were conducted, as were two focus groups.

After Sandy Dennis was diagnosed with lung cancer in February in 2017 she began raising awareness about the challenges of travelling from Yarmouth to Halifax for treatment. (Submitted)

Dennis, who will participate in the in-camera meeting as a member of the steering committee, has praise not only for the community but for Bethune and his team in Halifax. She said they've worked hard on the issue.

"We're down here, they're in Halifax, yet they understand the need and they understand what people are going through," she said. "We've had people here that have refused treatments because they can't afford to go to Halifax."

Bethune said he's well aware of the burdens of traveling for patients including the distance, weather, cancelled appointments, difficulties related to accommodations and cost.

Small victories

The group in Yarmouth has seen some victories along the way. Dennis said the recent decision to open the Lodge That Gives on weekends, beginning later this month, is a significant help for people who need to be in Halifax for treatment and require accommodations. There's also been an community support network that's developed.

Bethune said the issue of a radiation unit in Yarmouth has been discussed multiple times through the years, but has remained unresolved. It's his hope today's meeting will provide clarity to what he called "a very complicated issue." In planning for the meeting, a medical ethicist was brought in to make sure all aspects of the matter are being considered.

There are also some inescapable realities: there is a finite amount of resources and setting up such a site would be extremely expensive — Bethune estimates it would cost about $20 million to build a unit in Yarmouth and an additional $3 million each year to staff it. There is also the challenge of recruiting doctors in a rural area.

Report to be written this summer

Part of the information to be reviewed during the meeting will look at population trends for the future and alternative ways that money could be spent within the system.

Dennis said people in her part of the province understand the bulk of the money needs to go to Halifax, but she thinks there needs to be the ability to provide more cancer care at that end of the province.

"Sydney has it, Halifax, so we need something here."

Bethune said the goal is to finalize recommendations at the meeting, write a report over the summer and deliver it to the Health Department, senior leadership of the provincial health authority and Health Minister Randy Delorey, who will ultimately have to make a decision.

About the Author

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca