Brave survivor: ‘Here are the scars I live with every day’
SCARRED cancer survivors who have waited eight years for a breast reconstruction are among nearly 4000 Queenslanders in the queue for plastic surgery as short-staffed hospitals hunt for foreign surgeons overseas.
In a devastating Sunday Mail expose, brave women reveal their scars and their souls, telling how they have been left in limbo by Cairns Hospital, the epicentre of the surgery delays.
The State Government has been aware of the problems in Cairns, where at one point well over 100 women were on the waiting list.
In 2017 the Health Department injected $4 million into the hospital to clear the list. Brisbane surgeons were flown in but in the end they only cleared the assessment list, leaving many women still without surgery appointments.
The Sunday Mail has spoken to four of the forgotten women left hanging for a shocking number of years.
They feel ugly, lonely, depressed and on the scrap heap as they are desperate for the healing surgery so they can feel whole again.
Single mother-of-two Kate Yeoman, who has been on the waiting list for eight years, considered selling her home to pay for private surgery but chose to put her kids first.
"I've waited so long that I sometimes think I should just live my life without them, but my kids are growing up and I have got my life back, I deserve to feel like a whole woman," she said.
"Women left without breasts feel unfeminine, uncomfortable and vulnerable, unable to complete the healing process.
"In the end I realised that my children's future was more important than raising the $25,000 needed for the double breast reconstruction surgery so I stayed on the waiting list.
"It's now been eight years and I still live with the scars that remind me every day of the trauma of breast cancer."
Ms Yeoman appealed to Health Minister Steven Miles last year and was sent a letter from the Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service in November stating that while the delay was regrettable, her condition was not life-threatening and therefore not urgent.
"In Queensland, there are only a small number of highly skilled plastic and reconstructive surgeons who work in the public system and their priority is the patients with life-threatening conditions or who require the reconstruction surgery to restore function," the director of intensive care, women and perioperative services, Susan Henderson, wrote on Queensland Government letterhead.
"Due to increasing demand, coupled with the subsequent unsuccessful attempts to recruit to this specialty over many years, patients like you have experienced delays while waiting for an appointment/surgery, which is regrettable.
"I recognise that you have been on the waiting list for a considerable time and I apologise that you have not received the breast reconstruction surgery you require.
"I am also sorry I am unable to offer you an appointment at this time."
The letter reveals Cairns Hospital hired an extra surgeon last September and recruited another from overseas, who cannot start work until August this year due to registration and medical requirements for international medical graduates.
Ms Yeoman has now received a surgical consultation appointment for next week.
She is one of 56,176 Queenslanders on the surgical waiting list, which has grown by 7 per cent in the past two years despite record spending on public hospitals.
Health Department data reveals 3807 Queenslanders are still waiting for plastic and reconstructive surgery after accidents or cancer surgery.
On the Sunshine Coast, 22 per cent of patients had to wait longer than the clinically recommended time for plastic surgery last year.
Another Cairns cancer survivor, Vicki Buckley, is angry and depressed that she is still waiting for a breast reconstruction after her mastectomy close to a decade ago.
"I was told at the time that it would be a 12-month wait - what a joke,'' she said.
"Now it has been so long and so frustrating that I don't know if I will ever go through with it.
"I did get a call last year but I had personal issues at the time.
"I will still fight for my right to have it if I choose, and certainly for the right of the women in this area."
A Health Department spokeswoman said delays sometimes happened as surgeons waited for patients' health to meet surgery criteria.
Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service clinical director for surgery Dr Roxanne Wu said plastic surgeons had operated on 797 patients last year, with 151 patients on the waiting list.
"(There are) 14 women waiting for a breast reconstruction or follow-up fat grafting surgery - all who are waiting within the clinically recommended time frame," she said.
The Brisbane plastic surgery team sent to Cairns in 2017 assessed 124 women for surgery, with 20 women put on the waiting list.
Cairns Hospital performed breast reconstructions for 20 women in 2018 and 2019.
Breast Cancer Network Australia boss Kirsten Pilatti said women should not have to wait for a breast reconstruction after a mastectomy.
Australian Medical Association vice-president Dr Chris Zappala denied there was a shortage of surgeons, despite the Queensland Health letter to Ms Yeoman pointing to recruitment problems.
"It's not that there aren't enough doctors - they need to create a job that people want to do," he said.
"It's not just about pay - people don't want to go to a job if they're going to be on call every second weekend. Being on call leads to burnout and people quit."
State Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington said: "No woman should have to wait that long to feel whole again, this is part of the physical and mental healing process for many women who have suffered a terrible ordeal.
"The LNP will slash surgery waiting lists and get our hospitals working again.
"We will restore performance targets to drive better patient care and won't waste taxpayers money on renaming hospitals or endless digital disasters."
Eight years with just one breast
IT WILL be 2923 days in March since Cairns woman Dawn Riordan went on the breast reconstruction waiting list.
She has counted every one of those days since she had a single mastectomy in 2012 following a breast cancer diagnosis.
"My cancer was spread like a spider web, so the removal of the breast was the only option," the 56-year-old said.
"For eight years I have lived like this.
"It is so awkward that I sometimes think just take the other one off so at least I am balanced.
"I was one of the women assessed for surgery in the push to clear the waiting list back in 2017, but that is as far as it got.
"I have had another surgical assessment since then.
"You get your hopes up and then you are left hanging."
Ms Riordan wants all breast cancer patients to be offered breast reconstruction as part of their treatment regimen.
"The final hurdle should not be elective surgery," she said.
"It is part of the healing process both for the body and the mind."
'I feel ugly - no one will want me'
"MOST days I feel like I am not a woman, I am single not by choice but because I feel ugly and no one will want me anyway," Christine Dougall, 51, who is waiting for double breast reconstruction surgery, told The Sunday Mail.
The mother-of-four says she is sick and tired of wearing prosthetic breasts and is living in limbo.
"Sometimes I feel like I am not complete and I think I could keep battling this awful disease if I didn't have an every day reminder in the mirror that my breasts have tried to kill me," she said.
Ms Dougall was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 and sadly the disease has progressed to Stage 4.
"Just because I am Stage 4 doesn't mean I should be thrown on the scrap heap.
"I am doing OK and doctors are managing the cancer.
"I feel like everyone thinks it's not worth my while to have new breasts.
"One doctor in Cairns actually told me to go and live my life like no tomorrow.
"I have a family member in Cairns who had a breast reduction within 3½ months.
"Cairns Base Hospital told me I'd have a seven to nine-year wait.
"I have now moved to Brisbane and am on the waiting list at the PA Hospital as a Category 2."