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Navigating a new cancer diagnosis during a pandemic: ‘Everything is upended’

Gerry Broome, AP File

Robin McGee has been here before. When she was diagnosed with a recurrence of colorectal cancer on Monday, it marked the third time she’s been told she has cancer.

But this time, the diagnosis came in the midst of a pandemic, with the health care system in a partial shutdown to prepare for cases of COVID-19.

“What would normally happen is that a patient who has a recurrence is sort of clicked right back into their team,” said McGee. “But I’m having trouble making that connection because of the crisis.”

READ MORE: IWK Health Centre, NSHA introduce ‘no visitors’ policy amid coronavirus pandemic

All non-essential surgeries and procedures have been cancelled in Nova Scotia as officials brace for COVID-19 patients to start arriving at hospitals.

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McGee said it’s unclear to her if the procedures she needs before her cancer care begins fall into that category.

“For example, I have a [catheter] in my chest that’s dysfunctional,” she said. “Chemotherapy is delivered through it. That needs to be removed and replaced, that’s a day procedure.

“Unfortunately, all day procedures are cancelled.”

Robin McGee speaks with Global News on March 20, 2020.
Robin McGee speaks with Global News on March 20, 2020. Sarah Ritchie/Global News

McGee said she was unable to get in contact with the cancer centre in Nova Scotia or with a surgeon’s office, but she did speak with someone with the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) on Friday morning.

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The senior director of the NSHA’s Cancer Care Program, Dr. Drew Bethune, told Global News that his team is dedicated to maintaining cancer services to the greatest extent possible.

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“Although routine surgeries have been suspended, cancer surgeries are not considered routine,” Bethune said.

“There may be delays for many patients needing cancer surgery. A committee of expert cancer surgeons will make prioritizing decisions, considering all aspects of the surgery involved.”

Click to play video 'Local Infectious Disease Expert, Dr. David Kelvin' Local Infectious Disease Expert, Dr. David Kelvin
Local Infectious Disease Expert, Dr. David Kelvin

Late Friday afternoon, after speaking with Global News, McGee said she finally heard that a surgeon is reviewing her case. She called it a relief to hear they even knew about her case.

“It’s hard enough to navigate the cancer system at the best of times, but now everything is upended.”

McGee is a patient advocate and author who has published a book, The Cancer Olympics, about her delayed cancer diagnosis in 2010. She’s used to navigating the health care system, and worries about those who have less experience.

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“I’m gravely concerned and worried for those people,” she said. “It shouldn’t rely on who you know, or who you can make contact with.”

McGee is calling on the province to create a website to help new cancer patients navigate what to expect during the pandemic.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: 5 new presumptive cases in Nova Scotia, bringing provincial total to 12

She also wants to see expanded use of virtual medicine during the crisis — something the NSHA says is in the works. Some outpatient appointments can now be conducted by telephone or video.

On Wednesday, the province announced that doctors and pharmacists can now use new virtual care options, including by phone or secure videoconferencing, after striking a new agreement with Doctors Nova Scotia.

Meanwhile, McGee hopes she gets answers soon.

“Cancer doesn’t know there’s a pandemic on. Cancer’s still moving ahead, doing what it’s doing to us,” McGee said.

“We cancer patients, as you know, are at a much higher risk of the lethal consequences of COVID-19, so we need support and guidance at this time. I think health professionals need support and guidance at this time.”