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Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver.

On World Cancer Day last February, B.C. Premier John Horgan issued a statement utterly ignored by media at the time but notable now.

“British Columbia has a well-deserved reputation for excellence in cancer treatment,” the Premier is quoted as saying.

He should have used the past tense.

In a devastating and deeply reported investigation, reporter Andrea Woo details how far B.C. has come from that once sterling reputation.

The figures that Andrea compiled – she had to use sources outside British Columbia to uncover the data because it is not publicly available in the province – show a litany of targets that B.C. fails to meet. Other provinces do better, she found.

As of this summer, only one in five patients referred to an oncologist receive a first consultation within the recommended two weeks, according to internal data obtained by The Globe and Mail.

About 50 per cent of patients had been seen at the four-week mark. In comparison, about 75 per cent of patients in Ontario are seen within two weeks.

When it comes to beginning radiation treatment, B.C.’s average wait times are the longest in Canada. Timely treatment can be critical for survival and recovery, and a delay at one stage can compound overall wait times.

After a consult, about half of patients with cancer will receive radiation therapy as part of their treatment. Once such a decision has been made, 88 per cent of patients in B.C. are able to start within four weeks – the national benchmark for the maximum amount of time deemed appropriate to wait. This makes B.C. the poorest performing province in a country where the national average is 97 per cent.

Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador all came in at 98 per cent or above; New Brunswick was at 92 per cent and Nova Scotia at 89 per cent, according to data from 2021.

Of patients requiring chemotherapy, about 77 per cent start treatment within the recommended two weeks of a decision to treat and 95 per cent within four weeks, the data show.

Andrea’s story chronicles how staff shortages, aging equipment and severe backlogs in medical imaging were already making wait times long before the pandemic. Successive heads of BC Cancer resigned after meeting resistance or inattention to their warnings about impending problems.

Kim Nguyen Chi, was named chief medical officer at BC Cancer and vice-president of PHSA in 2019. Dr. Chi, a medical oncologist and an internationally recognized prostate cancer researcher, began his career at the agency in the late 1990s. He acknowledged that B.C. is not currently equipped to deal with the projected surge in cancer cases, though he said planned initiatives in a 10-year provincial cancer plan will meet the need.

“I can’t stress how much we – me and the entire system – want to shorten wait times as much as possible,” he said. “But, of course, we do live in an age of wait times in a publicly funded health care system, so we’re trying to manage those as best as possible.”

Andrea’s story prompted an outpouring of reaction. She has received social-media responses and e-mails from patients whose loved ones have waited months to see an oncologist and a few from physicians who concur with the contents of her report.

“My mom waited six months to see an oncologist for terminal colon cancer,” tweeted Stefan Jonsson, director of communications for the BC Greens. “The system is awful. It has nothing to do with the staff – from nurses and doctors to admin and support staff – they have been amazing. But they are overworked and burnt-out from a system that doesn’t work.”

Andrea is hoping to speak with Health Minister Adrian Dix in the days ahead.

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.

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