963 10.12.2010 Mzwandile Mbuli, from Jabulani in Soweto, cancer patient who came to the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital and was turned away because the machinery needed to take scans has been suspended due to lack of payment. Picture:Itumeleng English

Johannesburg - Valerie van der Merwe was due to see her oncologist on Wednesday – after waiting a year to see her oncologist at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital.

But, when she called to confirm her appointment , she was told her oncologist was on sabbatical until June.

Van der Merwe, 63, who has non-Hodgkin lymphoma - a cancer that starts in cells called lymphocytes which are part of the body’s immune system - said she had started receiving treatment at the hospital early last year after a referral from an oncologist she was being treated by in Krugersdorp.

“In the last nine appointments over nine months, I’ve seen two GPs who have qualifications in other fields at the hospital, but when you’ve got cancer, you have to see an oncologist…

“I was told the oncologist she would only be back next June. That’s a year and a half, it’s pathetic,” Van der Merwe said on Monday.

Van der Merwe found out she had cancer between 2004 and 2005, and in the interim had also suffered a stroke and heart attack.

“The oncologist at Charlotte Maxeke gave me four rounds of chemotherapy and after that didn’t work, I had to undergo 23 radiation therapy sessions.

“I was told the cancer was controllable but not curable, and, in time, the lumps (on her neck, back and underarm) went away,” she continued.

But, the latest delay has left her despondent.

“The last appointment I had for chemotherapy was three months ago. There are patients that come all the way from Limpopo to come to see the oncologist, and even if you have a 10am appointment, you don’t get to see the oncologist until 4pm.

“The nursing staff are also a joke because some will stick a needle in you four times before finding a vein… I had a bruise the size of my palm in my arm the last time,” she said.

Van der Merwe is one of hundreds of patients awaiting treatment in the province.

Full-line cancer treatment in Gauteng is provided at the Steve Biko Academic and Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic hospitals.

According to answers provided to the DA’s Jack Bloom by Health MEC Hope Papo, at Steve Biko, adult patients will wait about three months for radiation treatment.

Papo said “the demand far outweighs the capacity”, and added that there are about 200 to 300 patients on the waiting list dating back to last year. The hospital receives 30 to 40 referrals per week, which further increases the backlog.

Waiting times for radiation at Charlotte Maxeke is between 30 and 60 days.

The response indicated that frequent machinery breakdowns have worsened the situation.

These included:

* Linear accelerators and CT scanners at Steve Biko have been down for a total of 93 days this year.

* At Charlotte Maxeke, one Brachytherapy machine broke down in January this year, three linear accelerators broke in February, and two cobalt accelerators broke in June.

In addition, medical oncology departments suffered from “intermittent shortages of certain chemotherapeutic drugs as well as pain medication”.

Papo’s response indicates severe staff shortages - Charlotte Maxeke needs 44 radiation therapists and 164 more posts are needed at the Steve Biko cancer department.

DA MPL Jack Bloom said there was a cancer treatment crisis in Gauteng, and it needed urgent attention.

He said the survival chances of many cancer patients at the province’s hospitals are decreased because of long waiting times for treatment, as well as medicine shortages and frequent machine breakdowns.

Asked what steps were being taken to improve cancer treatment at hospitals, Papo said: “Steve Biko hospital has made a submission for creation of additional funded posts for the Oncology departments… Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital has reviewed the process of reducing waiting times by servicing patients on Saturdays and after hours.”

Spokeswoman for Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital Lungiswa Mvumvu said they were unable to give a detailed response by the time of going to print, but would do so on Tuesday.

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The Star