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'He wants to fight': Edmonton family feeling hopeless after months waiting for cancer care

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An Edmonton woman says she's losing hope as her husband has been left waiting for months to see an oncologist after being diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer this spring.

Cici Nguyen said her family's life "blew apart" when her previously healthy 41-year-old husband Steven Wong was diagnosed with inoperable gastric cancer in May.

While his doctors told him he needed to start chemotherapy immediately, Wong was still waiting on Thursday to see an oncologist to start treatment.

"I thought that the scary feeling would get better as we go through the system, and it's gotten worse because we've been left in the dark," Nguyen said. "Now we know there's a really big problem, but nobody's telling us how to fix it."

Wong's wait is well outside the provincial benchmark of four weeks to see an oncologist, but his story is not unique, the president of the Alberta Medical Association said Thursday.

"Unfortunately, this is becoming common," said Dr. Paul Parks. "In some areas, it can be as long as 12 to 16 weeks."

According to the AMA, the number of cancer diagnoses have increased by more than 40 per cent in the past 10 years. In that same time, the AMA said just 20 oncologists were hired.

Alberta Health Services said it hired 17 new cancer care doctors this year, but Parks said 10 of those will replace doctors who have retired or left the province.

With too few doctors to handle cancer patients in the province, Parks said oncologists have had to make hard choices.

"They're trying to actually prioritize patients with more treatable or curable cancers," Parks said. "We're even hearing of cases where people are having very serious outcomes or passing away before they see our specialists."

During his wait, Wong has spent 48 days in hospital with complications from his cancer, including gastric bleeding, a stomach rupture and a collapsed lung.

Each time a complication arises, Nguyen said her husband becomes less of a priority in a triage system where the sickest aren't seen first.

"Do they know that he's a father of three young kids? Do they know that he's 41, who doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, has an active lifestyle?" Nguyen said. "Do they know that he wants to fight?

"Do they put that into consideration? I don't think so. I think at this point they're just looking at the numbers, and that's it."

Parks said more competitive wages are the key to attracting the around 50 cancer care doctors needed to address the current demand in Alberta.

Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said she acknowledges the issue and she is committed to addressing them, while AHS said it continues to actively recruit oncologists and other cancer care staff in nursing and radiation therapy.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Chelan Skulski