It has been over a month since Sheldon H.J. Stoughton was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, and despite reassurances he has yet to start treatment.
His family says they were told the 67-year-old would begin chemotherapy last week, but when the day came, they didn’t receive a call. Stoughton’s daughter, Aleksandra Van Horlick, says it’s critical her father start treatment as soon as possible.
“He’s pale, just white. He’s not talking anymore, he just sits there,” she says. “It’s been very hard.”
Stoughton first went to see a doctor on May 3 when abdominal pains became intolerable, Van Horlick says. He was sent home with instructions to monitor his condition, but a day later the pain was so severe he was admitted to the emergency room, where he was diagnosed with cancer.
The family still doesn’t know whether the cancer is bile-duct or pancreatic.
Stoughton was put on high doses of painkillers and steroids. A CT-scan revealed what’s likely an inoperable form of cancer and more tests were needed before treatment could begin. But it would take two weeks, on May 29, before the test could be performed. It would be another seven days before the results were ready
On June 7, Van Horlick says a senior doctor showed them images of Stoughton’s liver and was told the cancer was likely inoperable, but more tests needed to be done before he could start treatment.
“He said he would set up a biopsy, and if my mom and pappi didn’t hear anything in three days we should contact him right away,” Van Horlick says. “And my mom didn’t hear anything. She started panicking because every day, we can see his health declining.”
Van Horlick says the doctor was compassionate and told them he would fast-track their treatment. Instead of waiting to hear back from the BC Cancer Society, he would book Stoughton to start treatment the following week.
“On the first appointment, [the doctor] looked at all three of us and says, ‘I know this is the worst part, the wait.’ So I just assumed this is the normal process, this is just the way it is. Then I started feeling angry because it shouldn’t be like this,” she says.
When there was no update, Van Horlick repeatedly called the front desk at Mills Memorial to ask why there was a delay, but couldn’t get through to speak with a medical professional.
When pressed, a receptionist told Van Horlick a referral was sent on June 7 to the Cancer Society in Vancouver, and his next appointment was on June 15 for another test in Prince Rupert.
“I thought it was instant,” Van Horlick says. “My thinking is when you’re diagnosed with cancer, you send the referral, you get things moving.”
A Northern Health spokesperson says the time frame for treatment depends on a “variety of factors” including the number, type and location of the tests that need to be done, and the test results.
For example, the benchmark for breast cancer patients is three weeks from screening to biopsy, though those timelines can differ depending on the diagnosis.
Stoughton will see an oncologist for the first time on June 20. By then, he will have gone 47 days without treatment. There is still no set date for Stoughton to start chemotherapy.
Van Horlick was told chemotherapy can extend a cancer patient’s life by about a year, statistically. Without it, Stoughton could have between two to three months left to live.
“I know that chemo is maybe not going to save his life, I know that and I’m coming to terms with that. But [chemotherapy] can at least make him more comfortable and alleviate his pain,” she says.
Van Horlick says she’s heard of other people waiting weeks to start treatment after a cancer diagnosis, and she’s also heard stories of people getting referred to the cancer treatment centre in Vancouver within a week.
“Now that I understand the referral was one of the [holdups], let us know there could be an extensive wait. But don’t tell me this is going to get done in three days or four days.”
Northern Health cannot comment on individual patient cases for privacy reasons, but says those concerned about their care should speak with their care providers, the health authority or BC Cancer’s Patient Care Quality Offices.
Waiting to start treatment has caused an immense amount of stress for her family to watch his health worsen, Van Horlick says.
“It’s the waiting that’s the worst part. He’s struggled enough.”
Ninety-three per cent of cancer patients in B.C. receive radiation treatment within a 28-day benchmark, according to a recent Canadian Institute for Health Information report. B.C. was the lowest ranked of all other provinces, which scored between 95-100 per cent.
The BC Hospitality Foundation has stepped in to match donations for Stoughton’s medical expenses dollar for dollar. So far, they’ve raised $2,500 of their $10,000 goal. To donate, visit the family’s GoFundMe page.