Last week, Cassandra Di Maria got an email no cancer patient ever wants to receive.
In it, a member of her surgeon's team informed her that a major surgery she had scheduled for Jan. 19 at Toronto's Mount Sinai hospital was being cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. No replacement date was set.
The email came after the Ontario government announced on Jan. 3 that non-urgent medical procedures would be put on hold for the third time since March 2020, while the province deals with a surge in cases of the highly-infectious Omicron variant.
"It's very frustrating because this is my life we're talking about," said Di Maria, 30. "I just want to be able to have my surgery completed and go into recovery and put this all behind me."
The Vaughan, Ont., resident is one of thousands of patients across the province who have had surgeries or procedures postponed or cancelled in a bid to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by record-high numbers of COVID-19 patients and staff shortages.
Now, Di Maria is calling on the government to rethink the decision to cancel cancer surgeries, saying the move is punishing non-COVID-19 patients whose lives are at risk.
"We all deserve to be treated for what we need to be treated for," she said.
Diagnosed with stage four colon cancer in November 2020, Di Maria underwent surgery and began chemotherapy last January. She stopped chemo in October after 17 cycles so her immune system could recover in preparation for another major surgery to remove spots on her liver, abdomen and one of her ovaries.
That surgery, originally supposed to happen in November, had already been postponed twice before it was cancelled last week.
Di Maria is concerned that being off chemotherapy for months has left her vulnerable.
"Having it postponed and cancelled so many times ... I'm worried, obviously, the cancer has gotten the chance to now spread further," she said.
Ontario Health, the agency that oversees the province's health system, said Thursday it couldn't confirm the number of surgeries that had been cancelled so far this year. But when the pause was announced on Jan. 3, Ontario Health CEO Matt Anderson said it would affect between 8,000 and 10,000 procedures a week.
"It was a tough decision, a big cost, but something that is necessary given what we're seeing in the [COVID-19] numbers," Anderson said at the time.
The cancellations of non-urgent procedures in previous waves of the pandemic led to an estimated backlog of 15.9 million surgeries, diagnostic exams, screenings and other medical procedures, the Ontario Medical Association said in June 2021.
Ontario Health and the Ontario Hospital Association both declined requests for an interview.
'It breaks my heart'
Dr. Fayez Quereshy, clinical vice-president and a surgical oncologist at Toronto's University Health Network (UHN), said hospitals are facing "unprecedented" staffing shortages as health-care workers and support staff get sick with COVID-19 or have to self-isolate.
While Di Maria's surgery was scheduled at a different hospital network, Quereshy said he had to call a cancer patient of his own on Tuesday to tell them that their procedure was being delayed.
"It breaks my heart to hear that story because, obviously, we want to put our patients at the front and centre," Quereshy said. "Unfortunately, we're making these calls far too often."
Quereshy said UHN is making it a priority to treat the patients experiencing symptoms that require urgent attention. Procedures that can be safely deferred or delayed are being rescheduled, he said, to create capacity amid surging demand for health care.
"The spike that we're seeing — almost all of a sudden and with very little notice — is unlike anything that we've seen before," Quereshy said.
On Wednesday, the province announced it would deploy internationally trained nurses to hospitals and some long-term care homes strained by staffing shortages.
Meanwhile, Di Maria still doesn't know when it will be her turn.
"I'm just waiting for a confirmed surgery date, or a confirmed 'No, it's not even going to happen,' so I can get back on chemo. Something," she said.