A Wairarapa woman in her late 80s has been left wondering what to do next after being told she doesn’t qualify for funded cancer testing due to her age.
The woman had a cancerous tumour removed almost 10 years ago and since then has been required to have regular blood testing.
Recent blood test results came back with elevated levels of CEA [carcinoembryonic antigen], which can often be an indicator of cancer.
The abnormal range is around 2.9ng/mL and upwards, but the resident said her levels are more than 10ng/mL.
But despite her blood markers indicating she could have an undefined cancer, clinicians in Wairarapa have been unable to refer her for further testing.
She was told a referral for a private scan could cost “thousands”, and no other avenues were explored by the practitioner she saw.
The cut-off age for certain screenings varies from around 69 to 74.
The resident said she feels let down by the healthcare system and that the lack of treatment seems “inhuman”.
“It’s like a lifetime of working and paying taxes counts for nothing,” she said.
Despite her situation, she cheerfully spoke to the Times-Age of her life achievements and how she’s maintained a fit and healthy lifestyle, still enjoying going for 3km walks every day. When discussing a pseudonym to be used in the paper, she suggested the names of several movie bombshells as possibilities, before settling on ‘Jane Doe’.
While worried about her own situation, she also expressed concern that other elderly Wairarapa residents could be going through the same thing, and that people would be fearful of growing old if they thought they wouldn’t be prioritised.
She said it is like “they’re sacrificing people”.
If she received treatment at this stage, Doe believes her condition could be “nipped in the bud”, but the lack of action has resulted in her wondering if the health system truly cares about the patient.
When asked what the next steps are, she simply replied, “They have to give me some care, surely?”
Doe is unsure if her inability to access treatment is due to Wairarapa’s GP shortage or if this is the nationwide policy.
National Screening Unit group manager Stephanie Chapman could only respond to broad queries about screening processes from the Times-Age because Te Whatu Ora is unable to discuss individual cases with media.
Chapman said the responsibility to refer patients for further screening falls upon the clinician who ordered the initial tests.
“Screening for cancer has risks as well as benefits, the balance of which depends on factors such as age,” she said.
“The three cancer screening programmes are available only for certain age groups to exclude those for which it is unlikely to have net benefits, taking into account the risks to the patient from treatment if a cancer is found, as well as the cost to the health system.”
She said that anyone who is concerned about their health can access free testing and specialist care on referral from their GP.
Chapman said care from GP teams is available in all areas of NZ, although this may involve waiting for an appointment or attending an urgent care clinic unless the condition is acute.
This hasn’t been the experience in Doe’s case, however, as the region’s GP shortage has meant she has only been able to see nurses.
She had not heard anything further from her medical team at the time of publication.
Doe admits she is scared she could have a potentially deadly cancer, and it feels like the health system has given up on her.
“It’s as if we [the elderly] are a burden on society,” she said.
Doe also spoke of her experience helping her terminally ill husband, whom she was tasked with caring for in his final 18 months – another period of her life in which she felt let down by the health system.
No healthcare professionals ever came out to help her, and for 18 months her life was on hold as she tried to care for her husband as best she could, administering his medication four times a day.