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opinion

When the phone rang in our home last December, we could never have imagined that our family’s world was going to be changed in an instant.

It was our then 35-year-old son, Jordan.

“How are you doing, sweetheart?” his mother said.

“Not so well,” Jordan replied. “I think I have cancer.”

He was immediately put on speaker so I could join in the call and hear what he had to tell us. The rest of the conversation remains a blur. In the coming days, however, a cancer diagnosis was confirmed, a highly treatable form believed to have been caught early.

Still, it was cancer, a word that scared us all.

I’m relating this story now in light of the important reporting The Globe’s Andrea Woo has done recently on the troubles at the BC Cancer Agency. Her reporting has chronicled a system in trouble, with the highest levels of staff stress and burnout among all cancer centres in the country.

I first reported on many of the same issues almost a decade ago. Meantime, the quality of care has reportedly worsened, with growing wait times and prompt access to cancer-related procedures such as magnetic imaging becoming more of a problem. In a letter to B.C.’s Minister of Health, the B.C. Radiological Society this week predicted a “tsunami of cancer cases” if delays in medical imaging weren’t soon addressed.

I’m sure every patient’s passage through B.C.’s cancer system is different, based on a multitude of factors. The age of the patient may be one. The advancement of the disease is another. There is one universal fact though: every person who receives a cancer diagnosis is petrified by the unknown.

Our son’s journey has been tumultuous. After his diagnosis was confirmed, things moved fairly quickly. He had a tumour removed within two weeks. Just under three months later, he started chemotherapy treatments in Victoria, which continued over several more months. But days before he was scheduled to complete his last session, just ahead of his chance to ring the bell signalling his treatment was complete, he developed a serious, life-threatening infection.

This put him in hospital for almost six weeks, during which he endured incredibly painful procedures to deal with what was a rare bug. This is when Jordan – and his mother and I – got a close-up view of a system groaning under the stress created by staff shortages and patient overload. Nurses told us of having to take care of many more patients than is the general rule. Some broke down in tears talking about it.

Yet, the kindness they showed our son was profound. One nurse sat with him and watched a movie at 3 a.m., when he couldn’t sleep ahead of a terrifying operation he faced later that morning. The doctors who cared for him were equally compassionate and incredibly competent.

A month or so after he was released, he faced another major operation that also came with more complications, but not nearly as serious as the earlier ones. Throughout it all, our son demonstrated an inner fortitude and uncomplaining external stoicism that was unfathomable.

This week, Jordan spoke with the surgeon who performed the last operation. The pathology report was as good as we could have hoped: there is no cancer, he was told.

Of course, he will have to be checked annually for the next five years before anyone is declaring victory, but the prognosis is excellent.

After nine months of seeing B.C.’s cancer system up close, I can say it is filled with incredibly inspiring and highly trained individuals who are saving lives every day. But the brutish pressure that comes with a job that is highly complex and emotionally taxing is being exacerbated by a shortage of nurses, doctors and other staff needed to handle the extraordinary demand being placed on the system every day. A demand that’s only getting worse as boomers age and the incidence of cancer rises.

What’s especially frustrating, particularly for those working in the system, is that this has been a known problem for years, and it’s mostly been ignored.

That said, I lost count of the number of times my wife and I thought: thank goodness we live where we do. That we don’t reside in a country where the quality of care is based on the size of your wallet. In many parts of the world, our son’s outcome would not have been nearly as assured as it turned out to be.

This week, we raised a toast to a full return to good health. And to the many amazing people who allowed our son to even begin imagining such a day.