MONTREAL — Surgery wait times for deadly ovarian, cervical and breast cancers in Quebec are three times longer than government benchmarks, leading some desperate patients to shop around for an operating room.
But that’s a waste of time, doctors say, since the problem is spread across Quebec hospitals. And doctors are refusing to accept new patients quickly because they can’t treat them, health advocates say.
A leading Montreal gynecologist said that these days, she cannot look her patients in the eye because the wait times are so shocking. Lack of resources, including nursing staff and budget compressions, are driving a backlog of surgeries while operating rooms stand empty. The latest figures from the provincial government show that over a span of nearly 11 months, 7,780 patients in the Montreal area waited six months or longer for day surgeries, while another 2,957 waited for six months or longer for operations that required hospitalization.
The worst cases are gynecological cancers, experts say, because usually such a cancer has already spread by the time it is detected. Instead of four weeks from diagnosis to surgery, patients are waiting as long as three months to have cancerous growths removed.
“It’s a crisis for Quebec women,” said Lucy Gilbert, director of gynecological oncology and the gynecologic cancer multi-disciplinary team at the McGill University Health Centre. Her team has had access to operating rooms only two days a week for the past year, with dozens of patients having surgeries postponed week after week.
Patients are prioritized according to need, Gilbert said, but surgical delays are still too long.
Gilbert says there are days she can’t face going into work at the Royal Victoria Hospital, a renowned cancer centre in gynecology, and dealing with crying patients. “Put yourself in their place. … I have difficulty making eye contact with patients. I am ashamed to be in such a situation.
“People are suffering. People are waiting too long,” Gilbert said. “This should not happen. No matter how good your surgery is, no matter how good your chemotherapy is, if you delay the surgery there could be a problem. The cancer grows. The cancer spreads.”
One worried patient, a mother of five children who waited three months for surgery for invasive breast cancer, said she is worried about the effects of such a long wait. After surgery, she paid $800 for a bone scan in a private clinic rather than wait five months for a scan at the Jewish General Hospital.
“They needed the scan to see what kind of treatment to give me,” said the woman, 40, who asked that her name not be published because she is starting chemotherapy this week. “The doctors are amazing but health system is not working.”