Cancer surgery wait times grows

PEOPLE on the peritoneal cancer treatment waiting list at St George Hospital compare it with death row.

Lives at stake: David Morris is angry that fewer abdominal cancer patients are being treated at St George Hospital. Picture: Chris Lane

Lives at stake: David Morris is angry that fewer abdominal cancer patients are being treated at St George Hospital. Picture: Chris Lane

They say each day of waiting brings you closer to death as you hope for a reprieve.

But the waiting list is growing longer and fewer people are likely to get lifesaving surgery in time after the hospital cut David Morris's peritonectomy surgery sessions from three days to two, citing budget and space problems.

Professor Morris, who built the peritonectomy unit to an international standing, said such cost-cutting by NSW Health would endanger lives.

He said he already had 20 people over the clinically recommended waiting time, which was one month for a "nasty" abdominal cancer and three months for others. A further 20 people were on the treatment list and 30 had referrals waiting for a toe-hold into the system.

He said most did not have other treatment options as St George was the main centre for that type of surgery, treating people from all over Australia.

"As a doctor, if you are unable to look after patients adequately you need to question if you can continue to work in this system," Professor Morris said.

"We chose medicine because we wanted to look after our patients."

He agreed the hospital was overcrowded and called on the NSW government to do something about it immediately by increasing funding and adding several floors on top of the new emergency department, which was about to be built.

"But if there is not enough money to do what we would like to do, the hospital should prioritise in some way," he said. "It is hard to accept that these patients should be waiting when other things, which are less life-threatening, get priority."

Professor Morris and his team were so concerned about patients they were prepared to operate on weekends when there was less demand on operating theatres.

"I am speaking out because my patients will be the ones to suffer," he said.

"And if I don't advocate for them, who will?"

72 OPERATIONS A  YEAR

A St George Hospital spokeswoman said its clinical council and executive constantly monitored and managed the allocation of cases on the surgical lists.

‘‘This is a regular activity and it’s undertaken with extensive consultation with the senior clinical staff of the hospital,’’ she said. ‘‘The allocation of individual surgical cases takes into account the appropriate and timely provision of critical care for all patients at the hospital. ‘‘Peritonectomy surgery is a statewide service provided at St George Hospital. The agreed level of procedures is determined by the assessed needs of all patients requiring care at the hospital.

‘‘Currently 72 peritonectomy cases can be performed each year.’’

Survivors: 'Give others a chance'

SARA Bowers describes the three months she waited for her surgery as psychological torture.

"It was without a doubt the most emotionally gruelling time for me and my family," she said.

"I am the single parent of a daughter, 21, whose father died when she was 15.

"While waiting for lifesaving surgery I spent many nights wide awake wondering if I would suffer from a fatal bowel obstruction before I could have surgery.

"My daughter has been so traumatised by the experience of waiting helplessly for so long for me to have surgery she still finds it very difficult to talk about it without bursting into floods of tears."

Dawn Warburton, of Bellambi, had a similar experience.

She had the same type of peritoneal cancer as Ms Bowers, pseudomyxoma peritonei (PMP), and when diagnosed was told to go home and prepare to die.

"I said to my daughter, they can go to hell, I'm not going anywhere," Mrs Warburton said.

Through some extraordinary luck, she heard about Professor Morris. "He told me it was grim, that the cancer was in just about every organ, and that things could go wrong," she said.

"But I was thrown a lifeline and I grabbed it."

That was 17 years ago and Mrs Warburton, 72, enjoys every minute of every day.

"[He] is irreplaceable," she said.

Both women, and many other patients of Professor Morris, want other cancer sufferers to get the same chance they had.

Ms Bowers put together an online petition asking the state government to address the problem. At least 10,000 signatures are needed.

Log on to http://livesatrisk.com.au/  and download the petition. Return to Cancer Patients Petition, PO Box 5176 Greenwich NSW 2065.