In the early 1960s, my mother suffered from breast and lung cancer. During the times when my father could not drive her, she would have to travel by train or bus from Cape Breton Island to Halifax for radiation and other treatments. The radiation she received was brutal. After her mastectomy, the cancer metastasized to her lungs. Her mastectomy scars had no time to heal and the additional radiation treatments fried the tissues on her chest. One day, as a young teenager, I was being selfish and paying no attention to what she was enduring, and she became frustrated enough to show me the burnt, oozing tissue on her chest. To this day, that image remains in my mind.
My mother’s health declined steadily to the point where she required oxygen at home until her death in April 1963. She left behind my father and five children. I was the oldest of the five, just about to turn 16. My father was left with costly medical bills. He had a good job at the time and was able to pay the thousands of dollars of bills—at least half of his annual gross income. I do not know if he paid out-of-pocket or covered them with one of the private medical insurance plans which were around before Canada’s national universal health care was enacted in the mid-1960s, but the bills were paid. Of course, the doctors, hospitals, medical equipment manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies charged only a fraction of what they would today.
Cancer technologies and treatment methods have come a long way since then. In the summer of 2004, at the age of 57, I was diagnosed with stage III prostate cancer. When the news came, it felt like I was hit between the eyes with a two-by-four. My thoughts immediately went back to the pain my mother, aunts and cousins went through following their cancer diagnoses, which all eventually led to their deaths in the 1960s and 1970s. My initial reaction was that I had to get the cancer out by whatever means it took, even if it meant cutting it out. My prostate cancer surgeon told me I was not a good candidate for surgery because the risk of leaving some of the cancer cells behind could lead to a recurrence of the cancer in neighbouring organs.
My surgeon referred me to the Cross Cancer Institute and I quickly came to feel very comfortable with the care I received from the good folks at the Cross. They immediately jumped into high gear, with treatment consisting of 7.5 weeks of radiation therapy and 2.5 years of hormone therapy. We managed to defeat that cancer. The costs of hormone treatments and the radiation therapy were covered. At the time; I lived in St. Albert and worked a 30-minute drive away in downtown Edmonton, so I was able to get to the treatments on my own. My only out-of-pocket costs were for gas and parking.
I will skip over the cancer-related deaths of several aunts, cousins and other relatives and acquaintances with one exception: a few years ago my youngest sister found a lump in one of her breasts. She underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy at the Ottawa Cancer Centre. Since then, she has recovered nicely and is now enjoying life to the fullest with her husband. As far as costs for medications were concerned, the Ontario public plan and her medical plan as a retired federal civil servant covered all the significant costs.
On May 8, 2014, I suffered a seizure. That had never happened to me before and it has not happened since. A CT scan at the Sturgeon Hospital in St. Albert revealed a shadow in my brain and a subsequent MRI at the Cross confirmed that it was a tumour. Fortunately, it was in a relatively inactive area of my brain. On May 29 – my 67th birthday – I was scheduled for a brain biopsy, then put on anti-seizure medication and told not to drive. Our old house had been sold and we had planned a move months before the seizure happened. In June, three days before I was supposed to move to a new residence, a biopsy confirmed that I had a cancerous grade III brain tumour.
Although the brain cancer diagnosis was scary, I took comfort in the fact that it had been caught early, and I knew I would get the best of care from the Cross yet again. During July and August 2014, a radiation oncologist and his team from the Cross administered six weeks of radiation therapy, five days a week. The chemotherapy oncologist managed 43 consecutive daily doses of oral chemotherapy concurrent with the radiation, seven days a week. For the two months that followed I had a break from the treatments. I was then put on a regime of stronger chemotherapy doses for the first five days of six 28-day cycles. Regular blood tests indicated that the platelets were recovering after each cycle. MRIs in January and March 2015 confirmed that the tumour was responding somewhat to treatments. I have had no subsequent seizures.
I was then scheduled for the 7th and 8th chemo cycles, after which we would reassess how I was responding. On June 1, 2015, a MRI showed that the tumour had shrunk. I met with the oncologist on June 4, and agreed that since the tumour was responding well to chemotherapy, I would continue with another four cycles of oral chemo for a total of twelve, until the beginning of September 2015.
My experience with the knowledgeable, experienced staff at the Cross Cancer Institute is proof that they know what they’re doing. I am able to access the services and medications I need without stretching my meagre resources to the breaking point. The Cross pharmacy provides me with the chemotherapy I need. My federal retiree medical plan, my Alberta seniors Blue Cross plan and my wife’s medical insurance plan combine to pay the costs for my anti-seizure and other medications. My out-of-pocket costs are gas, parking and getting medical forms filled out. I did get Alberta Transportation’s permission to drive again. As such, I consider both my sister and I to have benefitted greatly from having access to excellent health care plans as employees, citizens of Canada and the provinces of Ontario and Alberta.
In both cases, I have not felt any serious side effects other than being tired and needing naps. Otherwise, life has continued on as normal. Perhaps I’m the exception in that once the initial shock in 2004 was over, I dealt with both cancers as a reality and with a great deal of optimism. A lot of people who know my story comment on my positivity as being a key strength for me as I proceeded through the treatment phases. I have great support from all three generations of my family. Even though I’m retired, people from work continue to give me moral support. I also participate in a facebook community with people who share a common heritage from Cape Breton Island, where I was born and raised, and who continue to encourage me through my journey. I approach my remaining years with great optimism. I know I don’t have that many years left, but that’s ok.
However, with the constant tax-cutting refrain broadcast by conservative thinktanks and left unchallenged by our mass media and politicians, diminishing tax revenues, the increasingly meager health funding provided by our federal and provincial governments, the increasing costs charged by the equipment manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies to develop new equipment and medications, the creeping privatization of our health care system, and a shift from providing universal health care to letting individuals sink or swim on their own, I worry about the future that our children and grandchildren will face.