B.C.'s health minister has pledged to build a cancer care centre in Kamloops with an opening date of 2027 — at least three years later than what was promised by the current government in 2020.
While there is a cancer care centre at Royal Inland Hospital — including diagnostics and chemotherapy — it lacks radiation treatment, resulting in patients in the Kamloops area being forced to travel to Kelowna for that treatment.
Fifty per cent of all cancer patients in B.C. receive radiation therapy treatment.
Health Minister Adrian Dix was in Kamloops on May 25 to announce the approval of a concept plan for a complete cancer care centre in the city. It will rise on a parcel of land next to Royal Inland Hospital as part of a project that will also include a 470-stall parkade.
"What does it mean that we've approved a cancer care concept plan? It means it is in the capital budget of the provincial government," Dix said.
A business plan is expected to be completed later this year.
The new centre is expected to provide space for:
• patient arrival and check-in;
• radiation treatment, including three shielded treatment rooms, known as bunkers;
• three high-energy radiation treatment linear accelerators (LINACS);
• radiation therapy planning;
• one CT simulator;
• one MRI scanner;
• an outpatient oncology ambulatory care unit, including 10 exam rooms and two consulting rooms; and
• staff support, including offices and workstations.
Additional diagnostic and treatment equipment and services may be identified during the business planning phase.
The new centre is expected to provide radiation treatment to 1,000 patients in its opening year, which will result in 14,000 treatment visits per year.
But critics are skeptical the centre will be built on the proposed timeline and critical of delays and inaction since John Horgan, then premier, promised a cancer care centre within his four-year mandate when he spoke in Kamloops in October 2020, during the provincial election campaign.
Kamloops-South Thompson MLA Todd Stone of BC United called the announcement "rushed" and merely a response to recent criticisms over the NDP government's plan to send cancer patients to Bellingham, Wash., for radiation treatment.
"Frankly, I think there's no shovels here today. There's no big sign that shows any concept of what it would look like. The minister said it was in the budget, but it's not in the budget. We just went through the budget estimates process," Stone said.
Both Stone and fellow BC United Kamloops-North Thompson MLA Peter Milobar questioned whether or not the project was accounted for in the budget.
"It may have been approved by cabinet in the past day or two. So, we'll see in the quarterly update. If the Kamloops cancer centre is not in the quarterly update, it's simply not in the budget and the minister misspoke here several times," Milobar said, noting the project was not listed among projects over $50 million in recent budgets.
Dix said the cancer care centre is expected to cost between $200 million and $300 million.
BC Cancer chief medical officer Kim Chi called the announcement an "important step" that will bring cancer care closer to home for the region's residents.
Chi said the centre will handle 6,600 patient radiation consults and follow-up appointments per year, as well as 14,000 treatment visits.
"I have passionately believed, for a long time, that we need to distribute cancer care service around the province. It's why we're building, and in the process of building, four new cancer centres, here in Kamloops and three other communities," Dix said.
Dix and Premier David Eby are expected to make a similar announcement in Nanaimo on Friday. Dix said centres in Nanaimo and Kamloops will "go forward in tandem."
Dix said the community oncology network clinic currently in Royal Inland Hospital will also see upgrades.
It features oral and intravenous cancer treatment, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy and hormonal therapy. Upgrades will include the modernization and increase in the number of cancer treatment spaces and exam rooms, renovation and expansion of the existing pharmacy and installation of improved dispensing and automated dispensing replenishing area and storage.
Kamloops Coun. Dale Bass was one of several city councillors at the announcement. Bass was also present at Horgan's 2020 announcement, speaking in support of the campaign promise that ultimately went nowhere under the previous premier's tenure. At the time, Bass had recently undergone her own cancer care, travelling to Kelowna for radiation therapy.
Bass said she doesn't believe the NDP will meet the promised 2027 opening date.
"I don't believe it because look how long it has taken for our towers to be built — towers that didn't involve oncological radiation. I just don't believe that this government can move that quickly, if they even plan to," Bass said.
Following Horgan's announcement three years ago, Bass said she felt "used" and said she doesn't have as much confidence in Dix as she did in Horgan.
"I'm skeptical, but I'm also optimistic because he did show up and he did say it. But then, John Horgan showed up and said it, too," Bass said.
When asked about the previous promise and subsequent lack of action, Dix seemed to imply the situation was, in fact, progressing as expected.
"We're talking about a capital project between $200 million and $300 million, which requires enormous planning and effort, to decide where the right site is, make all of the preparations, get all the money approved. We're right in the zone. This is 2023. Concept plan approved — in 2023, business plan approved," Dix said.
Milobar was also highly skeptical of the plan, calling Dix's announcement a "slow walk" ahead of the next scheduled provincial election in October 2024.
"Magically, in 2024, there will be some delay. I'm confident in that," Milobar said.
However, Royal Inland Hospital Foundation CEO Heidi Coleman is optimistic.
"At the Royal Inland Hospital Foundation, we frequently encounter grateful patients who are appreciative of the care they have received, but often share stories about the hardships of having to travel to Kelowna for radiation and other cancer services,” she said. “This new comprehensive cancer-care centre is a win-win for the whole province.”