Health

Breast Health Centre “a huge difference” for cancer patients: surgeon

A dedicated centre for breast health has helped bring down wait times for breast cancer surgery in the province.

Since opening in 2008, the breast health clinic at the IWK has helped women combat cancer.
Since opening in 2008, the breast health clinic at the IWK has helped women combat cancer.   Mikkel Frederiksen

For breast cancer patients counting the days until their surgery, the wait for the “X” on the calendar to arrive can seem almost endless . But for Nova Scotians, that wait isn’t as long as elsewhere.

Along with the other provinces in the Atlantic region, wait times for breast cancer surgery in Nova Scotia are among the lowest in the country.

When it comes to patients with acute needs, hospitals in Nova Scotia take only five days longer than leader New Brunswick, and Halifax’s IWK Health Centre plays a big part in lowering those numbers.

Since performing its first surgery in March 2008, the breast health centre at the IWK has increased the speed of which cancer patients are treated in Halifax and the province.

“I worked at Dartmouth General Hospital, and there’s no way we could get our mammograms done as quickly done as the clinic does,” says Dr. Virginia Calverley, surgeon at the IWK. “So the breast health clinic has probably significantly affected wait time for breast surgery in Nova Scotia.”

While Halifax’s system operates well, other regions have had their problems. Availability of surgeons being one of them.

“If you’re in the Truro or New Glasgow area, they’ve had problems with surgeons, so we’ve had a lot referrals come down to us, because family doctors can’t get their patients to local surgeons because they’ve had people coming and going,“ says Calverley.

In order to keep wait times below target, the IWK constantly assesses its own performance at each stage of treatment.

“Everything does get tracked month to month, and if there are repeated times where people are waiting too long, it’s always reviewed,” says Calverley.

While breast cancer patients enjoy short wait times, the same can’t be said for patients suffering from other types of cancers. The number of people suffering from colorectal cancer is equal to that of breast cancer, and more people die from it each year. 

Still, surgery wait times are significantly longer for colorectal cancer patients in Nova Scotia.

While this is true for every province, the size of Nova Scotia’s difference in wait time between the two cancers is only surpassed by Alberta.

Out of all the regional hospitals in the province, only Yarmouth Regional Hospital had a shorter wait time for colorectal surgery than breast cancer.

The Nova Scotia Health Authority was unavailable for comment in regards to the longer wait times.  

Advocates say a reason may be the increased demand following the 2009 launch of the province’s colon cancer screening program, which sent screening kits out to Nova Scotians in order to increase early detection of the disease.  

“There is more colorectal cancer being diagnosed than there used to be, and that, in large part, is down to successful screening programs,” says Frank Pitman of the Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada.

Another reason could be that the number of working colorectal surgeons has been shifting for the better part of the last decade. An instability that makes it difficult to get a accurate reading on wait times, says Calverley.

“There’s been a big flux of people coming and going here in the last six years. Retention is important,” she says. “Things haven’t been stable here for a while, but it’s recruitment and retention and how much are people getting paid.”