More than 600 BC residents have gone to the US for cancer care

Richard Mearow had already endured many hardships before he was diagnosed with prostate cancer last August.

The elder of the Fort Nelson First Nation buried his daughter Tracy in 2022. Last year, he lost his wife of 30 years, Edda, and his mother, Mary.

When Mearow’s doctor told him he could receive radiation therapy more quickly in Bellingham, Washington, about 25 miles south of the Canada-U.S. border, the 66-year-old man jumped at the chance.

Two people taking a selfie
Richard Mearow is pictured with his wife Edda, who died in 2023. (Richard Mearow)

“She asked me, should I go to Bellingham?” Mearow told CBC News from his home in Fort Nelson, about 1,000 kilometres northeast of Vancouver. “Because the waiting list in Vernon was very long for treatment. So I said, ‘Let’s go there and get that done.'”

Mearow is one of 599 breast or prostate cancer patients who have completed their radiation therapy south of the border since patients began traveling to Washington state in mid-June 2023, with another 41 patients currently receiving treatment.

The majority of those who completed treatment – ​​457 – were breast cancer patients and the rest were being treated for prostate cancer.

The data was released by Health Minister Adrian Dix during a press conference in Kelowna on Thursday.

Dix also released a one-year progress report on the province’s 10-year cancer plan.

According to the province, the province has reduced the waiting list for radiotherapy from 1,357 patients in 2022 to 1,208 last year.

The province has also seen improvements in the time people wait for radiation therapy, with 80 percent of patients receiving radiation within the 28-day benchmark, compared to 75 percent in December.

That still puts British Columbia at the bottom of the list compared to other provinces and territories when it comes to radiation wait times. Wait times are well below the national average of 97 percent.

“We have to do better in our response,” Dix said Thursday. “That’s why we took action to add radiation therapy in Bellingham, Washington. I think that practice has proven effective for us in increasing the number of people who receive radiation in the clinically appropriate time frame.”

The report finds the province is falling short of its goal of sending 50 patients per week to Bellingham to help clear the backlog of cancer patients waiting for treatment here in BC.

Based on the 640 patients who have completed or are still undergoing treatment, this amounts to an average of 12 patients per week since June last year.

Asked about those numbers, Dix emphasized that the county is “fully utilizing” Bellingham clinics.

The report says the Bellingham clinics have been providing 50 patient treatments per week, which is not necessarily 50 patients per week.

For example, Mearow said he had five treatments a week for four weeks in February at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Cancer Center in Bellingham.

Need for cancer care closer to home

Mearow made the 10-hour trip to Bellingham alone, but quickly befriended other cancer patients he met in the waiting room. Many of them were also from British Columbia.

He said he was impressed by the compassion of the cancer care staff.

“To experience that and have so many nice people behind you and treat you like you were a person instead of just a customer… it was just uplifting. Your spirit was lifted.”

Mearow said he was told the radiation had significantly reduced the cancer and he remains positive ahead of his checkup next month.

Paul Adams of the BC Rural Health Network is committed to ensuring that cancer patients in remote and rural communities like Mearow have the same access to faster treatment in Bellingham as patients living closer to the U.S. border.

CBC News asked BC Cancer and BC’s Ministry of Health for a breakdown by health authority of the 599 patients who completed treatment in Bellingham. Those figures were not provided on time.

Adams said the long-term goal should be to get cancer treatment closer to people’s homes.

“The intention is not to send people out of the province because that’s not going to happen in the long run,” he said.

Shirley Bond, health critic at BC United, said the government’s reliance on the U.S. for radiotherapy is an indictment of a cancer system that went from one of the best in Canada under the previous BC Liberal government to one of the worst .

“It is very alarming to look at the circumstances in British Columbia today,” Bond said.

The British Columbia government budgets $34 million a year for the treatments, including patient travel costs. Dix did not say how much the program cost in its first year.

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