'We're talking about lives': N.S. cancer patient says medical backlog has grown because of COVID-19

A Nova Scotia woman is speaking out about what appears to be a significant backlog in cancer diagnosis and care because of the pandemic, and experts say it'll take significant resources to deal with it.

Anamarija Wagner survived breast cancer in 2005, but she's since been diagnosed with carcinosarcoma, also known as MMMT.

"The statistics say it's a 20 percent chance to make it to five years, with most patients gone after 21 months," Wagner told CTV from her home in the Halifax area. "I'm in month 15."

Treatments continued through the pandemic, and although she's grateful and satisfied doctors and healthcare providers have done everything they can, some of Wagner's follow-up appointments have been pushed back.

She believes specialists are overwhelmed with cases that went undiagnosed because of COVID-19.

"Now, everybody's trying to make up for getting the screenings. There's a backlog.  A lot of them are now being told, 'Yeah, there's a problem.  You've got a diagnosis, but it's gone a little too far'."

There's growing anecdotal evidence it's been happening, as doctors feared it would.

The Canadian Cancer Society acknowledges there's a lot of work to do.

"This is a really significant issue for cancer patients and for health systems and for governments to be considering moving forward," said Kelly Wilson Cull, the society's advocacy director in Halifax.

"We're at a point right now where there's a bit of a reckoning around what kind of backlog are we dealing with in the healthcare system?  How much is it going to cost to work through that backlog and the human resources against it?  What needs to happen in order to do this as effectively and efficiently as possible?"

The advocacy group the Nova Scotia Health Coalition says it's also concerned about the backlog of diagnostic tests and the impeding increase in disease, adding it has also exposed a bigger problem in healthcare.

"Before the pandemic, we were already in backlogs," said spokesperson Chris Parsons.

"This is a perfect example of the fact that there was never any slack in the system," adding he'd like to see it become an election issue in the current campaign.

It's a sentiment shared by Anamarija Wagner, for whom time has taken on a whole new importance.

"If they keep putting you off because they couldn't even look at your list or your results because they're so overworked, then that window of opportunity may be gone, and we're talking about lives," she said.