Debbie Dillon. SUPPLIED

Procedure defined as “elective” during COVID-19 pandemic

A Pelham couple is experiencing added anguish amid the COVID-19 pandemic after they were told the woman’s breast cancer surgery would be postponed indefinitely in anticipation of a coronavirus crush on local hospitals.

Debbie Dillon was diagnosed with breast cancer in January for the second time in five years. According to her husband, Jason, she was scheduled for a single mastectomy this Monday, until Niagara Health indefinitely cancelled procedures they have defined as “elective” at their St. Catharines site.

“This is unacceptable, you are playing God with my wife’s life,” Jason Dillon told Niagara Health Executive Vice President Derek McNally in an email he provided to the Voice.

McNally replied to him that surgeries have been postponed across the province as the pandemic unfolds, but that procedures are being considered on a case-by-case basis.

“We have an interdisciplinary team of staff and physicians currently looking at all of our cancer cases including Debbie’s,” McNally wrote in the email response provided to the Voice by Dillon. “Our chief of Medical Oncology, Dr. Janice Giesbrecht, along with each surgeon is reviewing all cases and determining their priority and treatment options. At that time, patients will be contacted by their surgeon and advised.”

Reached over the weekend, Niagara Health’s Communications Director Caroline Bourque-Wiley provided a statement from McNally which echoed that.

“Making the decision to postpone a cancer surgery is not made lightly,” the statement read. “We understand how difficult this can be for patients and families, and we are deeply sorry for the concern we have caused this patient and family. We are in regular contact with the family and will do what we can to address their concerns.”

However, Dillon said Sunday that he had not heard from anyone at Niagara Health in three days.

“He basically sent me the same letter that you received but only a condensed version,” Jason said. “The letter is a PR scheme to calm people down over the fact that breast cancer surgery has been classified by the Ontario government and hospital boards as ‘elective’ during this COVID-19 time. That is why we are angry. Cancer is cancer, and breast cancer kills thousands of women a day around the world. My wife and others will be out on the back burner as ‘elective.’”

McNally said in his statement that guidelines are still being followed.

“In the case of cancer surgeries, we are following guidelines provided by Cancer Care Ontario for use during a pandemic. Each patient’s case is assessed by a medical team at Niagara Health, including members of the oncology team and the patient’s surgeon, to determine their priority and treatment options. In addition, all cancer surgeries at Niagara Health are being reviewed on a regular basis by members of our oncology team and our surgeons. Any urgent patient cases will be re-prioritized, and new care plans will be developed. Patients’ surgeons will reach out directly to their patients if there are changes to their treatment plan.”

Dillon told the Voice that his wife’s statistical odds of survival are lower since this is her second bout of the illness. He did not say what stage level of cancer it is.

As of Wednesday, April 1, there had been 70 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Niagara, and 15 current hospitalizations. According to reporting by the Niagara dailies, Niagara Health is able to accommodate only up to 54 severe cases of the coronavirus at once in its hospitals.