For more than two months now, 70-year-old Francis (Phuc Van) Tran says he has found it extremely difficult to eat anything. He's lost a significant amount of weight, and prescriptions for probiotics and heartburn medication haven't helped.
During a visit to the emergency room on April 7, the oyster farmer from Vancouver Island finally learned the reason for his lack of appetite: there's a 10-centimetre tumour and two smaller growths on his liver, likely related to a previously undiagnosed hepatitis B infection he'd contracted decades ago in his home country of Vietnam.
He hoped to get a quick referral to a specialist, and says he was told the tumours could be dealt with through surgery if action was taken quickly.
But this week, Tran and his family learned he won't have his first appointment with an oncologist in Vancouver until June 20 — more than 10 weeks after the tumours were discovered.
He told CBC News that if he'd known how long this would take, he would have scrounged together the money to travel to the U.S. or even to Cuba for treatment of this frequently deadly cancer.
"I'm [feeling] left behind," Tran said.
Speaking alongside his daughter-in-law Shannon Tran at her home in the Comox Valley, Tran said he's dismayed by the number of news reports he's seen recently about health-care staffing shortages and long wait times for surgery.
"I don't know what the government is doing," he said.
Health agency taking 'active steps'
A spokesperson for B.C. Cancer told CBC that while she couldn't comment on specific cases because of patient privacy, new cancer patients are prioritized for appointments based on factors including tumour type, disease stage, symptoms and options for treatment.
The spokesperson wrote in an email that the agency is taking "active steps" to reduce wait times, and is currently recruiting for new provincially-funded oncology positions.
"Some vacancies have already been filled but it will require time to reduce the current wait times," the email said.
Shannon Tran points out that her father-in-law's oncology appointment was scheduled after daily advocacy by the family, including an opinion piece she wrote for the Victoria Times-Colonist newspaper.
She says she worries about the prospects for patients who don't have the same support and resources.
"At the best of times, the health-care workers in our system are so amazing and they're close to burnout," Shannon Tran said.
"These are turning into the worst of times, coming out of a pandemic with this backlog. The number of weeks people are waiting for imaging, for diagnosis and for treatment, it's really adding up to affect almost every British Columbian in some way."
'Everybody should go to be tested'
The Trans are also concerned about other older British Columbians from Southeast Asia who may not realize they have a chronic infectious disease that could put them at high risk for liver cancer.
When Francis Tran learned he has hepatitis, he also discovered that his cancer might have been prevented with proper antiviral therapy.
Tran came to Canada in 1979, one of more than 120,000 Vietnamese refugees who settled here after the war. Hepatitis B has been endemic in the Southeast Asian country for decades — the Vietnamese health ministry estimates that up to a quarter of residents have the disease.
Chronic infection with the virus is the most common risk factor for liver cancer, according to the Hepatitis B Foundation.
Tran said he's had at least three friends from similar backgrounds who've been diagnosed with liver cancer in recent years.
He's urging Vietnamese immigrants of all ages to get screened for the disease, and wants to see government programs encouraging that.
"I talked to my brother, sister, my son — everybody should go to be tested. Just go and check it out," Tran said.
In the meantime, he's still waiting to see a specialist to determine a course of treatment. Tran said he's feeling a bit more energetic these days, something his daughter-in-law attributes to a diet of protein smoothies and liquid meal replacements.
"It's super dire and concerning, but he's really trying right now, waiting for treatment, to just stay strong and not lose any more weight," Shannon Tran said.