By Steve Hubrecht

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Last week B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix announced funding to support rural residents who need to travel for cancer treatment. 

Local officials in the Columbia Valley and East Kootenay were appreciative of the money, but said it’s a stop gap measure that won’t fully address the needs of residents here suffering from cancer.

Dix made the announcement on Wednesday, Sept. 27. (the Pioneer attended by teleconference), and it included $10 million in funding for the Canadian Cancer Society and $10 million for Hope Air. The two charitable organizations will use the money to expand their travel programs for rural British Columbians who live far from treatment centres. 

But here in the East Kootenay, officials have been pushing hard for a different measure that they feel will be more effective: adding radiation therapy to Kootenay East Regional District Hospital in Cranbrook. 

The hospital is getting a new building for its oncology and renal departments. Kootenay East Regional District Hospital (KERDH) board chair David Wilks has been leading the charge to add radiation therapy – or at least the possibility of it — to the design plans for this new building.

Wilks told the Pioneer he’s been lobbying for two years now, mostly recently during a meeting with Dix at the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) convention in the Lower Mainland. “He (Dix) didn’t say no to radiation in Cranbrook, but he did say other places take priority and he listed them: Kamloops, Prince George and Nanaimo. He added that’s not to say something couldn’t happen in Cranbrook, but did say those places are the priority,” reported Wilks.

If radiation therapy does come to Kootenay East Regional District Hospital, Wilks said there may be the possibility of financial support from regional mining company Teck Resources Ltd.

There is, however, a sense of urgency. Design plans for the new building should be complete within a few months, and if they don’t include the potential for radiation facilities it could prove very difficult to add them in later.

“We only get one kick at the can,” said Wilks. “Once they build the second tower (the new building), if it doesn’t have a bunker, or some form of potential for a bunker, for radiation, I don’t think we’ll ever get it . . . it’s now or never.”

The Ministry of Health argues that radiation is not justified in Cranbrook based on the number of people it would serve, said Wilks, adding “but my argument is it is justified by the length of travel to other centres.”

Currently people in the East Kootenay (which includes the Columbia Valley) who need radiation treatment must go all the way to Kelowna. Wilks noted that unfortunately Hope Air doesn’t fly into Cranbrook. Local charitable organization Angel Flight does, and has flown Columbia Valley cancer patients to Kelowna for appointments. “But if you can’t hook up with Angel Flight, it’s a very long way to drive,” said Wilks.

The drive can take anywhere from six to eight hours, involves crossing two major mountain passes, making it even trickier in winter.

Wilks clarified that he his grateful for the funding, and would be delighted if Hope Air can expand to Cranbrook. “That would take some of the burden off Angel Flight. But at the end of the day, it’s just a stop gap,” he said. Kelowna’s already oversubscribed for radiation, he noted. And the Lower Mainland is also over subscribed for radiation so much so that Lower Mainland patients are being sent to Kelowna, or in some cases even south of the border, for radiation.

“The writing is on the wall: this issue isn’t going away anytime soon,” said Wilks.

Invermere Mayor Al Miller shared similar opinions.

“I too am frustrated,” Miller told the Pioneer. “They are putting their dollars in the wrong spot. They are promoting travel to other centres, but they need to help people closer to home.”

The Kootenay East Regional District Hospital is a regional hospital and may not serve a huge number of people, but it does serve a large geographic area, Miller pointed out.

“Transportation to Kelowna is not good at the best of times, and those passes can be dangerous to drive,” he said.

“It (the funding announced by Dix) is a nice gesture, but it doesn’t address the thousands of dollars already spent by patients on travel to Kelowna,” said Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Doug Clovechok. He pointed to one cancer patient in Kimberley who has spent nearly $15,000 on travel and accommodation in Kelowna during her treatment.

“This funding should have happened a long time ago, and it should be retroactive so those who have already had to pay can now be reimbursed,” Clovechok said.