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Esquimalt woman with cancer upset B.C. won't cover dietary supplements

May 01 2012

An Esquimalt woman with two types of cancer is pleading with the provincial government to pay for her nutritional supplements after being told by the provincial disability office they're not essential.

Sharen Gammon, 53, is a former clerk at CFB Esquimalt but has worked only on and off since she was diagnosed with a blood cancer in 2000 and then breast cancer in March 2010.

"If I was a drug addict and I was infected with [hepatitis] C or HIV for my own bad behaviour, I would be entitled to all those supplements," Gammon said, explaining that those are covered because they are both deadly diseases.

"But I'm sitting [here] with cancer and I can barely afford to feed myself," she said, adding she relies on food banks.

Gammon has cancer in her left breast, but her doctors have told her both breasts need to be removed to prevent the cancer from spreading.

Gammon said she's on a limited budget of $866 a month, $600 of which goes to rent, and she can't afford the supplements at $245 a month.

The surgery could take place in the next two months so Gammon said it's crucial she get the supplements before that.

"I can't delay the surgery, I don't want to take the chance that it's going to - metastasize."

In addition to her breast cancer, Gammon has polycythemia, a potentially lifethreatening blood disorder with a cancerous form. It can cause the spleen to work harder than normal and enlarge.

She also has been diagnosed with moderate to severe immune-system suppression.

Her physician recommended the nutritional supplements to build strength to prepare for the double mastectomy.

But the government's disability assistance office denied her request in September.

The ministry's rejection form said that to qualify, Gammon would have to have at least two symptoms as a direct result of a chronic, progressive health deterioration.

Her suppressed immunity qualified as one, but the damage to her spleen from blood cancer did not.

"The spleen is not a vital organ," the ministry rejection form read.

"It's possible to live without a spleen, although living without a spleen can stress other organs."

Gammon said she has lost faith in B.C.'s health care system.

The bureaucratic wrangling is "heartless and so illogical," said Gammon's NDP MLA, EsquimaltRoyal Roads' Maurine Karagianis.

Karagianis took the case to the legislature Monday and demanded answers from Social Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux.

"Do you have to be on death's door to get supplements?" Karagianis asked. "I mean, it is just the most callous and heartless approach."

Cadieux, who became minister in late September, said the case won't be reopened.

"The situations that were brought up today were resolved before I became minister," she said in an interview.

Cadieux refused to discuss specifics about the case, but did say the type of nutritional supplement requested is "primarily reserved for individuals who exhibit very extreme circumstances" related to caloric intake.

The spleen "wouldn't be considered a vital organ in relation to the application specifically for a nutritional supplement of that type," she said.

"Yes, it's difficult," Cadieux said. "But the reality is [that] each and every case is looked at individually with the information provided by the individual's doctor to determine whether or not the supplement is required."

kderosa@timescolonist.com

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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