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Sask. health care worker battling cancer sounds alarm on working conditions for frontline staff

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A Saskatchewan healthcare social worker battling breast cancer shared her experiences navigating the health system – while also voicing concern over the culture and working conditions in the sector.

Shannon Orell-Bast was diagnosed with breast cancer in August of 2022. Since then she’s received 16 rounds of chemotherapy, 25 radiation treatments, a double mastectomy with no reconstruction and 17 immunotherapy treatments.

She attended the legislature on Tuesday to shed light on what issues she faced while receiving care.

“As a healthcare social worker, that's what I do for a living, I navigate the healthcare system … and I was met with a lot of barriers trying to navigate for myself,” she told reporters.

Orel-Bast also highlighted diagnostic and treatment delays – and how those facing cancer simply cannot afford the wait.

“There is research that says from the time that you find breast cancer – within nine months you should be through that treatment for your best prognosis. So if we have delays in even getting diagnostic testing done or getting the treatment done, we are reducing the lifespan of these people,” she said.

“I was actually concerned at one point, this system is gonna kill me, truly.”

Orell-Bast said she witnessed the effects of staffing shortages and a culture of overwork, leading to burnout.

“The mission statement of the [Saskatchewan Health Authority] is ‘We work together to improve the health and well-being every day for everyone’ and that everyone includes health care workers,” she explained.

“Because if they’re not well, we’re not well.”

Orell-Bast’s appearance at the legislature was not her first time sharing her experiences navigating the health care system.

“We had a conversation back in December about her personal circumstances and just her view of how things are working in the system to where it could be better,” Health Minister Everett Hindley told reporters Tuesday.

“I think she's done an excellent job of being able to communicate not only her own personal circumstances, but … what she's experienced from frontline health care providers as well.”

Hindley stressed the importance of hearing from both patients receiving care and those working in the sector.

“Those sorts of engagements with patients, that helps inform what we decide as government,” he said.

“Those working in healthcare, why do they feel that way? What can we do? Is it overcapacity? Is it short staffing? Those are things that I think we as a government can help address.”

As part of Saskatchewan’s most recent budget – the province allotted a $3.5 million increase for breast cancer care and screening initiatives, $1 million for ongoing ovarian cancer research and $1.2 million for enhanced gynecological cancer therapy.

The Saskatchewan Cancer Agency (SCA) will see an increase of $26.1 million, or 11.7 per cent, for a total record budget of $248.9 million.

In addition to sending women in need of urgent mammograms to Calgary – the province has announced opening a breast health centre in Regina along with an expansion of screening eligibility.

In contrast with Hindley’s comments on collaboration with healthcare workers – Orell-Bast said there is much more to be done to improve working conditions in the sector.

While recruitment and filling vacancies are needed – she believes there must be proper focus on retention and fixing workload issues for those already on the frontlines.

“I am here to advocate for the workers because those workers, they provide my care. So if they're not well, guess what? They're not there,” she said.

“You can put in infrastructure. You can put in machines, you can put in whatever you want. You need people to operate these, and they need to be well.”

“Let's create a culture of accountability, of respect, of safety, of emotional wellbeing," she added.

"Where people want to go to work.”

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