Cancer diagnosis changes doctor’s views

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Chatham-Kent Health Alliance emergency room physician Anthony Dixon, centre, has become a volunteer advocate for the Canadian Cancer Society. Dixon joined other advocates from across Canada in Ottawa recently to share experiences and lobby government to improve care for cancer patients and their caregivers. Volunteer advocate Paramjot Gogia, left, Dixon, and CCS advocacy manager Hillary Buchan-Terrell were among those who took part in an advocacy event on Parliament Hill.

By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

When ER doctor Anthony Dixon was diagnosed with cancer, his life changed.

So too did his approach to the patients he sees who are also facing a cancer diagnosis.

“Before I had sympathy,” the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance doctor told The Voice in a recent interview. “Now I have empathy. It was quite a shock going from physician to patient.”

Two years ago, the symptom-free 54-year-old learned he had prostate cancer following a routine blood test that detected abnormal PSA levels, a harbinger of the illness.

“The PSA test saved my life,” Dixon said, noting he immediately began treatment and underwent surgery just two months later.

Now the survivor is sharing his story, using his experience to help others facing a cancer challenge, as well as working for change at the national level. Dixon is now a Canadian Cancer Society volunteer advocate and recently attended a two-day symposium in Ottawa, calling on the federal government to improve cancer care.

In honour of Daffodil month – held each April to promote cancer awareness – advocates from across Canada travelled to Parliament April 8-9, to share their stories and press MPs to improve the health-care system for cancer patients and caregivers alike.

During an Awareness Day on the Hill event, Dixon and others shared their experience with MPs from four different parties, advising them of some of the changes needed to improve the journey for cancer patients and their loved ones.

Although he was given his diagnosis by a colleague, who was also a friend, Dixon said he had to navigate the health-care system just like everyone else.

It was an eye-opener.

Dixon said that while he knew a lot about the “medicine” aspect of cancer, he wasn’t aware of the “bigger picture,” including the strain of manoeuvring the system, or of the critical importance of the support of family and friends.

Even though he was surrounded by people who cared for him, including the people he worked with, Dixon said it was still tough.

“I needed a lot of help,” he added. “I had knowledge of how the system worked but it was still difficult to navigate.”

Statistics indicate that rates of cancer are increasing, meaning that nearly half of all Canadians will face a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime, impacting their loved ones and caregivers, as well. It’s estimated caregivers currently save Canada’s health-care system approximately $26 billion per year.

A change in the eligibility criteria for the Canadian Caregiver Tax Credit is one of the goals of the CCS. According to Dixon, it’s currently difficult for the people who need it most to access the tax credit, placing an especially heavy burden on single females who are the sole providers. The tax credit change would cost taxpayers $300 million.

Including all cancer medications in Canada’s pan-pharma program is another change the CCS is lobbying for, Dixon said. Traditionally, chemotherapy treatments have been administered at hospitals but improvements that see medications in pill form generally have to be paid for by the patient delivering an out-of-pocket hit during an extremely vulnerable time.

Dixon said he met one woman whose cancer drugs cost $8,000 a month.

CCS advocates are also lobbying to remove enticing flavours from vaping, and to raise awareness about the increased risk of cancer to those who have more than three drinks of alcohol a day. The organization also wants to see the creation of a national database to highlight what treatment and services are available in every community in Canada.

With a nationwide decrease in availability of family doctors, cancer diagnosis has become part of emergency medicine, Dixon said, adding he’s called on to tell people they have cancer on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis.

Nowadays, since his own diagnosis, he offers them more time.

“I’m more aware,” he said, adding he’s cognizant of other challenges patients may face, such as not being able to speak English.

“My colleagues tell me I’ve changed in the way I deal with people,” Dixon said.

Dixon advises those facing cancer to reach out to the Canadian Cancer Society, noting it’s a good starting point. He also urges every Canadian male 50 years and older to have the simple PSA blood test.

“The CCS has excellent information and can help you access services, even if it’s just getting a ride to treatment,” the doctor said. “It’s a great cause and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

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