Nova Scotia

Yarmouth cancer patients mobilize online for local radiation treatment

Residents in the Yarmouth area who travel hours to Halifax for cancer treatment are sharing their stories in an effort to bring a radiation unit closer to home.

Cost of a radiotherapy machine at Yarmouth Regional Hospital pegged at $39M

The Yarmouth Regional Hospital doesn't have a radiotherapy machine. (Robert Short/CBC)

Residents in the Yarmouth area who travel hours to Halifax for cancer treatment are sharing their stories in an effort to bring a radiation unit closer to home. 

Radiation therapy isn't available at the Yarmouth Regional Hospital, although chemotherapy treatment is. 

For years, people have been quietly making the trip, said Derek Lesser, who formed the Yarmouth Cancer Support Network on Facebook earlier this month. 

Within days, thousands joined the group and began posting about their experiences — stressful drives to the city, spending money on food and a place to stay, and losing precious time with loved ones.

Taking on the battle

"In fairness to government, I'm not sure they've heard enough complaints about it and I think often because when you're battling cancer you're not necessarily complaining about it," Lesser told CBC's Information Morning.

"So our goal is to get a number of people who have been through it or have seen the effects of it who are healthy enough to take on the battle for them."

With Antigonish MLA Randy Delorey recently sworn in as the new minister of health and wellness, Lesser is hopeful that now is the time for change.

Lesser's daughter was diagnosed with leukemia in 2014. She didn't require radiation, but he said the high cost of her oral cancer medication made him aware of the unfair access many Nova Scotians face.

"We're a very tight-knit community and a very supportive community," said Lesser. "We're not maybe as loud as Cape Breton … we're not the Danny Williams of the east, but we quietly like to get things done."

A 'burden' for people

Sandy Dennis, a councillor with the Town of Yarmouth, was diagnosed with lung cancer in February. She spent six weeks at The Lodge that Gives in Halifax, and while she stayed for free, she said her husband paid $65 a night.

"Your support person, whether that be your husband, wife, sister, whoever, sometimes they have to take the time off work, so that could mean the loss of income for six weeks," said Dennis.

Sandy Dennis, a councillor with the Town of Yarmouth, was diagnosed with lung cancer in February and spent six weeks undergoing treatment in Halifax. (Submitted)

The Lodge that Gives isn't open on weekends, so patients either pay to stay somewhere else or drive back to Yarmouth.

In April, Dennis asked Yarmouth town council to send a letter to the Department of Health and Wellness urging the government to make a radiation unit at the regional hospital a priority. Dennis said she has yet to hear a response.

Review coming this fall 

A study in 2014 put the cost of a radiotherapy machine at the Yarmouth Regional Hospital at $39 million, plus $3.5 million each year to operate it. 

That money would have to come from somewhere else in the Nova Scotia Health Authority's already-strapped budget, said Dr. Drew Bethune, medical director of the authority's program of care for cancer.

"It's a very difficult decision. If it weren't horrendously expensive it'd be a much easier decision and certainly all of us would love to have that resource in Yarmouth," he said. 

Bethune said a review will take place this fall to see if those 2014 numbers are correct and how many people would benefit from a machine. 

"I've got an open mind. I have these numbers that are very large, but if there's something that's different, it would be great if we could facilitate that resource in Yarmouth," he said. 

With files from CBC's Information Morning