During her year-and-a-half battle with cancer, Loni Atwood at times felt like she was part of a science experiment — and other times like she’d been completely forgotten.
The 43-year-old equestrian instructor from Parksville said she lost precious time after B.C. Cancer initially opted to monitor an adrenal gland tumour with hopes it wouldn’t metastasize. A scan three months later showed her lungs were so riddled with tumours, there were doubts chemotherapy would be effective.
“Basically you feel like you’re a sitting duck,” she said. “It’s devastating. People are losing their lives.”
Atwood is among several cancer patients going public with stories about the inadequate care they say they’ve received in the hopes it will push the province to shore up a treatment system that has fallen from being one of the best in Canada to one of the worst. That number includes the family of Dan Quayle, a 52-year-old Victoria man with Stage 4 esophageal cancer who died while waiting for chemotherapy.
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B.C. Premier David Eby acknowledged Tuesday the province’s cancer treatment waiting times are “unacceptable” and said he takes responsibility for fixing the problems.
“Any wait times for an individual that’s facing a cancer diagnosis is unacceptable for them and their family and for me,” Eby said during an unrelated press conference Tuesday. “The stories are horrific.”
He was responding to a question about the latest B.C. Cancer data that shows the province’s waiting times have got worse despite the B.C. NDP government’s efforts to ease treatment backlogs by sending breast cancer and prostate cancer patients to Bellingham for radiation therapy.
About 75 per cent of cancer patients are receiving radiation therapy within the Canadian benchmark of 28 days, according to B.C. Cancer data, a drop from 77 per cent in May and below the national average of 97 per cent — making it one of the worst rates in the country.
“There are clear clinical guidelines for when people need to receive their treatment,” Eby said. “It is my job to ensure that happens. I’ve directed the Health Minister (Adrian Dix) and the B.C. Cancer agency to address wait times.”
Dix insisted B.C.’s efforts to ease the backlog by sending cancer patients to Bellingham is working. It’s helping those with breast and prostate cancer who were already waiting beyond the 28-day benchmark, Dix said, which is why it’s not reflected in the data.
B.C. Cancer does not release waiting time data for chemotherapy treatment.
Dix expects waiting times for radiation therapy will see “significant improvements in the next few months” as a result of the Bellingham program as well as the hiring of 61 oncologists and 27 radiation therapists. Dix touted the new cancer centres planned for Nanaimo, Surrey, Burnaby and Kamloops as part of the province’s 10-year cancer plan.
Those improvements will come too late for Atwood, whose experience with the B.C. Cancer system was marked by confusion and frustration.
Atwood, whose lifelong passion for horseback riding led to a 22-year career coaching others, was hospitalized in April 2022 after suffering from anemia and stomach ulcers.
After doctors found an adrenal gland tumour near her kidneys, she underwent surgery on May 20 at Vancouver General Hospital within seven weeks, a timeline she was happy with. However, the delays started when it came to the chemotherapy treatment.
“The plan going into surgery was to start preventive chemotherapy immediately,” said the single mom to two teenage sons. “And after three months there was still no word.”
There were delays in getting the pathology report to her doctor “so I really didn’t have answers for a long time,” she said. The pathology report was finalized in September and Atwood was diagnosed with adrenal cortical carcinoma in November 2022.
The medical team decided the tumour — most of which had been removed in the surgery — would be a low-risk for metastasizing. A decision was made to monitor her cancer.
“They said, due to my low risk and high capacity of (cancer) patients, it was their recommendation to wait until the next scan.”
Her next scan in February 2023 showed the tumours had spread to her lungs and her blood. Atwood felt scared and helpless.
“The results came back on my birthday so I’ll never forget it,” said Kim Hart, Atwood’s sister. Hart said it was unbearable watching her older sister — who led an active life filled with healthy eating habits and exercise — grapple with the stress and uncertainty while trying to put on a brave face for her sons, Brandon, 19 and Garrett, 16.
“Why didn’t they do that preventive treatment?” Hart asked. “We thought she was forgotten about.”
It was another two months before Atwood met with a B.C. Cancer oncologist who said the tumours had spread so much, chemotherapy wouldn’t be effective.
“I felt like a science experiment and just had to forge (ahead) on my own and pray,” she said.
She found a naturopath who started hyperthermia treatment, in which body tissue is heated to help kill cancer cells.
Three weeks later, she was told she would be starting chemotherapy in May, but with no explanation for the change of decision. She felt like she was treated as an afterthought.
Atwood, who forced herself to stay positive amid the constant setbacks, remembers the anger she felt when a B.C. Cancer information package sent to her home included a pamphlet on hospice care. She tossed the pamphlet without opening it.
“I guess for them (hospice) seemed like the next step for me, but I’m far from that,” she said.
Her sister is blunt about the quality of treatment Atwood received: “They screwed up and now she’s paying the price.”
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