When Patricia Riley was diagnosed with colon cancer in May, she felt devastated at first.
But because the disease was caught early, the 51-year-old felt like she’d won the cancer lottery.
“I was a cancer patient who was actually happy, thinking I had the best-case scenario,” recalled Riley, who works as a public servant in Ottawa.
The cancer was localized and had not spread to her liver or lymph nodes — meaning the odds were good that she was going to beat this potentially deadly disease.
She said doctors at The Ottawa Hospital (TOH) initially planned to surgically remove part of her colon within four to six weeks.
That period has since come and gone, and Riley is still waiting.
Riley is among the many Ontarians impacted by a staggering hospital backlog made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, which by May had amassed to one million surgeries in queue, according to the Ontario Medical Association.
While the most serious of gastrointestinal cancer patients are designated as a priority cohort eligible for immediate surgeries, Ontario Health says those with less urgent needs should still receive surgery within a target of two to 12 weeks.
Riley said she now spends her days waiting by the phone at her home in the community of Orléans, hoping to win what has turned into a hospital lottery of last-minute surgery cancellations.
“I literally feel like a ticking time bomb,” Riley said about her cancer. “Every day you wonder, is it today? Is it tomorrow? Is it next week? When does your luck run out?”
Not all patients seen within targeted wait times
According to Ontario Health, about a quarter of gastrointestinal cancer patients ended up waiting longer than the targeted wait times for surgery provincewide between January and March 2022.
Patients with gastrointestinal cancers waiting for surgery at The Ottawa Hospital waited slightly longer than the provincial average — about a week longer for those on the lower end of priority.
The Ottawa Hospital attributed part of the problem to the pandemic, but told CBC it is working with the Ministry of Health and other regional health partners to increase operating room capacity.
“If a patient’s condition worsens, they should contact their care provider immediately,” a spokesperson with The Ottawa Hospital wrote in an email statement.
“If it is deemed that they are in need of urgent surgery, they will be seen as soon as possible.”
More staff needed to clear backlog: advocate
Barry Stein, president of Colorectal Cancer Canada, said the stress of waiting for surgery takes a massive toll on patients and their families.
A colorectal cancer survivor himself, Stein said the problem appears to lie in a hospital staffing shortage.
“It seems to be a lack of personnel available as a consequence not only of more surgeries, but also people are just drained,” he said.
Stein said he wants to see hospitals use the pandemic as a learning experience and take preventive measures to weather future crises — starting with staffing.
“Building health-care resiliency into our systems is really a longer-term plan, but something we have to work on immediately,” he said.
Stein called on governments to increase the health-care system’s capacity and find ways to allocate resources more effectively. He said that includes increasing preventive care measures such as cancer screening in order to reduce the number of people who end up needing advanced surgical care.
Filing complaint against TOH
For Riley, she said unless there’s a last-minute opening, doctors at the TOH cancer centre have now told her to expect her surgery sometime in August or September — more than double the initial estimated wait time.
She said she is filing a complaint through the hospital’s patient relations division in hopes of securing a sooner date.
The experience has left her feeling alone in her fight against cancer — and not so lucky anymore.
“If surgeons are telling the hospital there’s a backlog, why is that not enough?” said Riley.
“Why do the patients during the worst time of our lives … have to reach out to the hospital and advocate for this?”