Women in the west of Scotland are being forced to spend they or their family’s life savings to fund private treatment amid a “postcode lottery” in ovarian cancer care.
Patients say they are being left with no other option but to fork out £30,000 for surgery in England or risk their lives on a NHS Scotland waiting list.
According to Target Ovarian Cancer, those in the west of the country face the worst outcomes when it comes to survival rates of the disease – despite making up about a third of people diagnosed.
The charity said only 46% of women in western health boards survive ovarian cancer compared to 54% in other parts of the country.
‘I burst into tears when I was told it would cost £25,000’
Julie Craig, from Ayr, is among those who faced waiting months for surgery.
She was on holiday in Benidorm in 2022 when she felt pains in her stomach. She saw her GP in October and by November, doctors confirmed she had ovarian cancer.
Ms Craig, who works for a charity for deaf people in her town, had previously lost two aunties to ovarian cancer on both sides of her family.
Her cancer responded well to chemotherapy on the NHS but she was told she would struggle to see bowel and gynaecology surgeons before the end of her sixth chemotherapy session at the Beatson.
That’s when her doctor told her the best option would be to go to a private clinic in London.
“I asked how much it would cost and she said at least £25,000,” she said. “I think I burst into tears when I heard that because I didn’t have £25,000.
“The other option was I didn’t get the operation until after I finished my chemotherapy and that’s not what we want to happen.”
With the help of her family, Ms Craig managed to raise the money for the treatment, which reached £30,000.
Target Ovarian Cancer says access to the right treatment at the right time is vital to improving a woman’s chances of survival.
The charity said people in the west of Scotland are often receiving six cycles of chemotherapy before surgery instead of the recommended three which falls out of line with guidance.
“At the time all I could focus on was that I want to survive,” Ms Craig said. ”I’ve got boys at 23 and 21. I want to be there for them. I wanted to do anything I could do to make sure I was still here.”
Ms Craig said the NHS simply “did not have enough staff”.
She added: “They didn’t have the two surgeons to operate on me. We need more consultants in the west of Scotland.”
Ms Craig’s latest results show she is in remission.
‘I know ten women who have gone through this and they’ve all gone private’
Gayle Cowie said being told she had cancer was one of the worst things she had heard in her life.
The psychotherapist received “excellent” care on the NHS but like other women in the west she was unable to undergo surgery quick enough.
“There is an obvious lack of surgeons in the Greater Glasgow Health Board,” she told STV News. “If you go to Aberdeen, Inverness and Dundee it’s fine but it seems to be in this pocket for some reason.
“I live in Ayrshire now but I’m from the east coast originally and if I was still there my treatment would have been completely different.
“I know ten women at least who have gone through this and they’ve all gone private.”
During the Covid pandemic, the NHS was paying the clinic in Hammersmith to undergo the very same surgery.
But in 2023, many women feel forced to shell out tens of thousands of pounds to pay for the treatment that was previously free.
Ms Cowie has been given the all clear since March.
‘Cancer doesn’t wait and we can’t either’
Margaret McCall, from North Lanarkshire, was just 49 when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
She used her life savings to pay £28,000 for private treatment after her consultant recommended it due to surgery wait times.
The 51-year-old, who works as an account manager for an IT company, had three chemo sessions on the NHS before being told she would need to wait a minimum of 12 weeks for surgery with no date given.
“That comes to you like a bolt out of the blue. You’re thinking, ‘what happens in the meantime?’
“The difficulty is if you continue with chemo your body can reject it. The more you get it the higher the chance of your body rejecting it.
“You can become ill and then you’re not fit enough for surgery. So I wanted the surgery as quickly as possible. You just want it out of your body.
“Cancer doesn’t wait and we can’t either. It’s a choice between life and death.
“If I didn’t go private there’s every chance I wouldn’t have made it.”
Ms McCall has put in a complaint with the NHS and has asked if they could refund her for the treatment.
“Their response to that was it my choice to go private,” she said. “But it wasn’t a choice. Choose to live or choose to potentially die. It’s not a very nice choice.”
Her last scan showed no evidence of disease.
‘I thought that was it – that was me’
STV News previously spoke to Irene Hartshorn, a retired teacher, who was told she would need to wait at least 12 weeks on the NHS for surgery.
Her sister helped her pay the nearly £40,000 bill to go private in London.
Without it, she said, she fears she would be dead.
“The cancer had accelerated since my first diagnosis. I felt so unwell. I could hardly breathe, I couldn’t eat, couldn’t walk. That’s why my sister stepped in.
“They thought that was it, that was me. If I hadn’t had that surgery and had to wait it might have got worse and spread to other parts of my body.”
Ms Hartshorn’s latest results show she has no signs of cancer.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Cancer remains a national priority and we are investing £40m over five years to support cancer services and improve waiting times.
“We understand the distress of those having to wait longer than they should. NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde have recently made available more surgical theatre time to treat ovarian cancer.
“Across Scotland, 94.7% of women are receiving their first treatment for ovarian cancer within 31 days of a decision to treat, with a median wait of ten days. (Q2 2023 April – June).”
The Scottish Government could not say whether “first treatment” described chemotherapy or surgery.
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde it could not comment on individual cases.
But a spokesperson told STV: “We would like to offer our sincere apologies to anyone who has experienced delays in their treatment pathway.
“NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has continued to invest in the centralised gynaecology oncology service which is provided from Glasgow Royal Infirmary for patients across the west of Scotland, and as a result, we have seen significant improvement, both in terms of the numbers waiting for surgery and length of waits, in the last 12 months.
“We expect that in early 2024 women will receive surgery after their third cycle of chemotherapy, which is the waiting time we would clinically aspire to achieve.
“If any woman is considering requesting their GP to make a private medical referral, we would recommend the GP speaks to the team at the GRI for an updated position on her circumstances, so that she can make an informed decision.”
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