After testing positive for a gene that puts her at high risk for breast cancer, coupled with her family’s medical history, Jannelle Chemko says it’s not a matter of if she’ll get the disease, but when.
That’s how the 37-year-old ended up in BC Cancer’s hereditary screening program – which is why she’s in disbelief over the six-month wait she’s facing to get a biopsy for two suspicious spots in her breasts.
“If I had known back in August that it was going to be six months, I would have looked into alternative options right away,” said Chemko, three months after her mammogram identified the spots. “Instead I’m at the mercy of a health-care system that’s failing.”
On the day of the diagnosis, Chemko says she was told she’d get a biopsy appointment in two to three weeks. Weeks turned into months, until her doctors at the hereditary cancer program called to tell her the earliest appointment available to her was in February.
When escalation tactics by both her team at BC Cancer and her family doctor failed, the head of the hereditary cancer program advised her to write a letter to her MLA.
“My sister said ‘OK! We’ll email your MLA and anyone else we have to,’” Chemko said, referring to her older sibling, Jana Letain.
The pair lost their mother last year at age 59 to breast cancer, and their grandmother died of the same disease when she was 53 years old.
“My mom would be devastated to know she went through this a year ago and now my sister may be going through the journey but she can’t get the testing done to know if we should be worried about anything at this point,” says Letain.
After writing a letter to West Vancouver-Capilano MLA Karin Kirkpatrick, Health Minister Adrian Dix and B.C. Premier David Eby, Letain has only received one reply.
Having survived breast cancer herself, Kirkpatrick says she’ll do whatever it takes to help Chemko while acknowledging there’s only three sitting days left in the B.C. legislature this year.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to have that conversation and if not in the house then certainly directly with the health minister so we can help this young woman and other women in the same position as she is,” Kirkpatrick said.
In September, radiologists across B.C. penned a letter to Dix, calling for urgent action to address long waits for life-saving medical imaging.
Since then, the president of BC Radiological Society tells CTV News that the group has met with Dix to advocate for patients and propose solutions.
Proposed fixes include recruiting, training and retaining radiologists who specialize in breast imagining and expanding the supply of breast biopsies.
“Timely access to medical imaging saves lives,” said Dr. Dr. Charlotte Yong-Hing, adding, “the anxiety associated with waiting for medical imaging can also have adverse effects on mental health, which should not be underestimated.”
At this point, Chemko says she’ll do anything to be proactive to stay healthy for her two kids, who are ages one and three. That includes seeking costly treatment from a special clinic north of Seattle, which has offered her a biopsy next week, paperwork pending.
“My mom’s mom passed away when I was three weeks old, and my mom died when I was nine months pregnant. She never met my son, and I want it to stop here,” said a teary Chemko.
CTV News has reached out to the provincial Health Ministry, which says it is reviewing Chemko’s story and preparing a response.