Allison is a digital reporter for the Bay of Plenty Times

Cancer patient faces 12-week wait to see specialist at Tauranga Hospital

Margaret Richardson has cancer. How serious, how long she has to live and whether there is treatment available are things she doesn't know.

The 61-year-old Greerton wife, mother and grandmother was told it would be a three-month wait to see an oncologist at Tauranga Hospital, which the Bay of Plenty District Health Board said was due to an unexpectedly high number of referrals over summer coupled with staffing issues.

"That's 12 weeks of sheer hell," she told the Bay of Plenty Times, sitting on her couch at home, where she has been cooped up nearly every day since learning she had cancer.

Mrs Richardson had to stop going to work because breathing had become hard for her and she was not able to give the 100 per cent needed.

Margaret Richardson has been given a wait time of 12 weeks to see an oncologist at Tauranga Hospital. Photo/Andrew Warner
Margaret Richardson has been given a wait time of 12 weeks to see an oncologist at Tauranga Hospital. Photo/Andrew Warner

"I can't bloody breathe and it's scary. Just making the bed in the morning I'm puffing like a steam train."

The cancer is in her right lung, left ribcage, right chest wall and spine.

Cancer was no unusual beast in Mrs Richardson's life - 10 years ago she was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Within a week of being diagnosed, she went under the knife for a nine-and-a-half hour operation, followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Now, Mrs Richardson was stuck "in limbo".

Her second experience with cancer started when she hurt herself helping her husband move a storage box at home.

An X-ray showed something sinister on her lung, prompting more tests.

At the hospital in late January a large needle took fluid from her lung and she underwent a CAT scan.

The verdict? After 10 years of remission, cancer had returned.

Initially, Mrs Richardson was led to believe she would see an oncologist within a week, but after calling the oncology department when they had not been in touch she was informed it would be a six- to seven-week wait. She was given a Grade 3, not an urgent priority.

"I guess that means I'm not on death's door. But it's the not knowing that's the worst part."

I've been through chemo before and it's absolutely horrible - but I'm hanging out for it. Bring on the chemo - I've got a beautiful grandson I would like to see grow up.
Margaret Richardson

After calling to see how things were tracking on March 1 she was regretfully told the delay would now be eight to 12 weeks because there had been an unprecedented number of referrals and the department was short-staffed.

"The doctors, nurses and staff at the hospital are amazing and brilliant. This isn't their fault, their hands are tied," Mrs Richardson said.

She said she thought it was the wider healthcare system that was letting her down - perhaps a funding issue, a result of Tauranga's growing population.

To pass the time Mrs Richardson was playing cards, catching up on TV and reading.

"I've been through chemo before and it's absolutely horrible - but I'm hanging out for it. Bring on the chemo - I've got a beautiful grandson I would like to see grow up."

She said it was a long time to be in limbo and, though her husband was still earning an income as a hydraulic engineer, their household income had halved with her not at work.

That's 12 weeks of sheer hell.
Margaret Richardson

"The bills still have to be paid. Winz can't help because my husband is still working.

"It's impacting on every aspect of my life - it's causing a lot of stress and the one thing you don't need with cancer is stress."

No one should have to wait for cancer treatment, said the Bay of Plenty District Health Board's business leader of medical services, Neil McKelvie.

During the summer months there was normally a drop in referrals, which did not happen this year. This, coupled with a staff member having to take unexpected leave, put pressure on Tauranga Hospital's oncology team, Mr McKelvie said.

He was a 30-year medical oncology veteran and said he understood Mrs Richardson's frustration, admitting the hospital should have had more "proactive communication" with her.

Medical oncology was a specialist field and could not be filled by other specialists, he said.

"The good news is that on 20 March our SMO [senior medical officer] comes back from leave and in May we will have another part-time SMO starting with us."

The increased staffing would mean the oncology department could see every new referral within two to four weeks.

The additional part-time senior medical officer would also help with Pharmac's recent release of two new drugs - treatments for patients who would not previously have received treatment.

I can't bloody breathe and it's scary. Just making the bed in the morning I'm puffing like a steam train.

Mr McKelvie said there were usually 35 to 40 new patient referrals every month.

He said as health professionals they wanted to treat patients as soon as possible.

When he started at the health board seven years ago there was one full-time equivalent senior medical officer working in medical oncology. In May there would be 3.4 full time equivalent senior medical officers.

The Bay of Plenty Times asked the district health board what waiting times were for an initial consultation with an oncologist and how many people were currently waiting, and was told to submit an Official Information Act request which can take up to 20 working days to be answered.

The Cancer Society website said the uncertainty and anxiety of waiting could be physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting.

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