As It Happens

'I just felt ill,' says woman whose mastectomy was cancelled because of the COVID-19 crisis

Sydney Loney has been waiting for weeks for her cancer surgery. And now, because of the demands on the Canadian health-care system during the COVID-19 pandemic, her mastectomy has been put off indefinitely.

'From my understanding, breast cancer is fairly serious,' says writer Sydney Loney

Sydney Loney was scheduled to have a mastectomy by mid-March. Now, due to COVID-19's impact on the medical system, her surgery has been postponed indefinitely. (Chloë Ellingson/Maclean’s )
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Sydney Loney has been waiting for weeks for her cancer surgery.

And now, because of the demands on the Canadian health-care system during the COVID-19 pandemic, her mastectomy has been put off indefinitely.

The Oakville, Ont., writer and editor has since discovered that she's just one of many people who are not getting urgent procedures. All of them now face an agonizing wait to find out when they might get the medical help they need.

She wrote about her experience for Maclean's magazine. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Sydney, just how pressing is it for you to get this surgery? 

From my understanding, breast cancer is fairly serious so I feel it's, you know, rather pressing.  

What's your doctor telling you?

My doctor is doing the best she can and I think has been sort of left to triage her patients on her own from what I can understand.

She is hoping that by putting me on tamoxifen it will just sort of hold the cancer in check for now until such time as we're able to find a surgery date. Until [operating rooms] are operating at full capacity again. 

But tamoxifen is something you have after these procedures. So why is that prescribed at this point? 

Typically, yes. I mean, most often it's used after a mastectomy to prevent the cancer from coming back. It is sometimes used prior to surgery to shrink a tumour.

I think that is sort of what she's banking on, just hoping that we can kind of … you know, keep it from progressing. 

Although there's no way of knowing how far it has progressed since my last ultrasound, since we also can't book an ultrasound. So the idea was monitor it and see how fast it is spreading. And we can't do that. 

What did your doctor say to you when she told you that this surgery was not going to go ahead?  When you're booked for something like this, your whole life is focused on that, isn't it? That's the moment, and your family's moment, when it's the beginning of the end of something that has been a nightmare. So how did she tell you that it wasn't going to happen?

That's exactly it. 

I had in my mind and reassured my family that this was going to be taken care of, and by the end of March that there would be nothing to worry about. 

She was very matter-of-fact about it.… You know, making the best of a terrible situation. And I understood that. And I also know I'm not the only one. So I was just trying to remain as stoic as I could. It happened so quickly too. 

I had waited for several hours.... She came in, sat down and said, "We can't do this. Here's what we're going to do."  

It was very businesslike. We were just like, "OK. This is what's going to happen. And we're going to hope for the best."

Medical staff work at a computer terminal as they prepare for the opening of a COVID-19 assessment centre in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

What was your reaction when you heard that? 

I felt ill.… Yeah. I just felt ill. 

Then you had to go home and tell your family?

That's the worst part, I think. It's one thing for me. It's just another for my kids. 

We really haven't talked about it, and I try not to make it ... a thing in our lives. It's just, you know, a minor inconvenience. A bit of a setback. We'll get over it.  

I don't know what to tell them and I don't know how to reassure them. Telling my family was the worst part.

How old are your kids? 

Ten and 13.

And what reaction, what effect, has it had on them knowing this? 

They sort of look to me to see how I'm reacting and I just try to, as I have been, not be emotional about it in front of them. 

Everyone is sort of struggling in this sort of very strange time. So there's extra stress anyway. And I think by night time, everyone is a little more upset and that's when it turns into, you know, that they're upset and I'm upset and we're just trying to get through it.

A mastectomy doesn't feel elective to me.'- Sydney Loney, writer and cancer patient 

So we're so far talking to you as a cancer patient, and now I'm going to talk to you as a journalist. You put that other hat on, didn't you, at some point, to dig a bit deeper into who else was being affected? What did you find out? 

The day after that terrible appointment I thought, you know, I should really talk to somebody about this and people should know about this because I had no idea. It was still my understanding that only elective procedures were being cancelled.

And then I thought, well wait a minute, I'm a journalist. I could do this. 

I made a few calls. I spoke to a couple of doctors. And I learned that this is a widespread, you know, pandemic planning thing that's happening in hospitals, and the hospitals are shutting down their activity. 

As of last Friday, it was shut down — at least in Toronto — up to 70 per cent, with the goal being to get it much higher than that. 

I would like to see more of a plan in place, or hear of more of a plan, in terms of what exactly is going to happen to this backlog of critically ill people. I'm certainly not the only one with cancer. But it's not just cancer. It's people waiting for organs and people who have heart disease. 

I can't even imagine how many people this affects. 

Members of the public wait to be tested at a COVID-19 assessment centre located at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In your research … what seems to be the case at this point is that the hospitals are anticipating this, or preparing for it, but they don't really have that rush of patients yet that they're anticipating. How could they have done things differently, as far as what you've been able to learn?

That was something that frustrated me before I even began speaking to a few doctors. 

I just thought, "Well, why not get us through because the backlog is going to be immense?"

When I posed that question to one of the physicians I spoke to, he agreed.…  It was common sense to him to have treated as many people as possible and move them through and gotten them in and out rather than wait and wait for how long, as we don't know. 

Even now, you know, the focus of efforts is still on testing and there aren't that many people in the hospital system yet. So it made sense to me and to him to have moved people through. 

Again, as he said, you know, it will be hindsight to know whether or not that was the right decision. But it's not a decision that I understand. 

So do you have any idea at this point what operations they are going ahead with?

I do not. I don't know who decides what's elective. 

I've been told it's being determined on a case-by-case basis. But it seems to me that, you know, a mastectomy doesn't feel elective to me.


Written by Kate Swoger and Sheena Goodyear with files from Katie Geleff. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story stated that Sydney Loney had her double-mastectomy rescheduled indefinitely. In fact, the procedure is a single mastectomy.
    Apr 22, 2020 2:56 PM ET

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