Top News

MEDICAL TRAVEL: Cape Breton woman fighting leukemia one trip at a time

By 9 a.m. April 3, Corbett is back in the cancer centre at the Victoria General for her chemo treatment. Registered nurse Alexis McIver starts the day checking Corbett's vitals and doing an assessment on her side effects and physical symptoms.
By 9 a.m. April 3, Corbett is back in the cancer centre at the Victoria General for her chemo treatment. Registered nurse Alexis McIver starts the day checking Corbett's vitals and doing an assessment on her side effects and physical symptoms. - Nikki Sullivan

Treatment involves weekly flights to Halifax for Westmount resident

SYDNEY, N.S. - Exhaustion and pain are evident on Tamara Corbett's face when she is picked up on April 2 to go to the airport to get her flight to Halifax for her weekly chemotherapy trip.

Weak, sore and nauseous, Corbett is and the end of the third phase of the Dana Farber treatment protocol for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It's an aggressive form of cancer that had doctors at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital to rush Corbett to the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax by ambulance after diagnosis on May 5, 2017. It was a life or death circumstance. It is Easter Monday and Corbett is on day five of her 21-day cycle in the treatment plan. Day five to day eight are the worst days for Corbett because she has finished a five day round of the steroid dexamethasone is going through withdrawals.

On top of the other side effects from the disease and treatments, Corbett is dealing with hot flashes and sweats, extreme pain in her muscles and bones as well as nausea and mood swings. Instead of being able to stay at home and in bed, Corbett has no choice but to make her way to Halifax, more than 400 km away, where she has been having weekly chemotherapy since August.

"The travelling makes it worse, the pain and the symptoms, and I can see if the doctors will give me some pain meds but they usually won't," she said. "It's the same thing every month… they want your body to fight back and get to rebuilding immediately, but it's not much fun when your body is fighting."

Sunny skies and a tailwind helped Corbett and her Hope Air pilot, Rosebrugh, get back to Cape Breton in an hour and ten minutes. Here the plane is flying over the Canso Causeway. During the flight, Corbett's energy picked up with her excitement over flying in the small plane at 9,000 feet. - Nikki Sullivan
Sunny skies and a tailwind helped Corbett and her Hope Air pilot, Rosebrugh, get back to Cape Breton in an hour and ten minutes. Here the plane is flying over the Canso Causeway. During the flight, Corbett's energy picked up with her excitement over flying in the small plane at 9,000 feet. - Nikki Sullivan

Corbett is grateful she is getting flown by Hope Air in a private four-seat, single engine plane instead of having to take a shuttle or a commercial flight. Because she can't drive herself, Corbett needs to find other ways of transport and before she was accepted by the charity Hope Air for flights, she struggled with taking shuttle services because they caused her more pain, made her stays longer and exposed her to more illnesses, which she usually caught because her immune system is suppressed.

Because her chemotherapy has causes muscle deterioration, Corbett can't step up into the plane. Pilot Bob Rosebrugh has to grab her around the waist to lift her up, while Corbett's body shakes from the strain. She makes a joke about it, but anyone who knows Corbett well knows she is a do-it-herself kind of woman and having to rely on so many people for help is hard for her. She is used to being the one who helps.


Trips to Halifax since diagnosis: At least 36
Kilometers traveled since diagnosis: More than 14,400 km

After the flight takes off, Corbett seems to forget about her pain and nausea. For the hour and fifty minutes it takes to fly in a headwind to Halifax, Corbett talks to Rosebrugh about how the plane works.

"Just being up here makes me feel better. It's the adrenaline rush of it all," she told Rosebrugh during the flight.

Once in Halifax, there is no time for Corbett to rest or eat before heading to the hospital. Even though it is Easter Monday, she knows she has to get her blood work done so it will be back in time for her appointment at 9 a.m. the next morning. Her levels, such as white blood cell and platelet count, have to be at a certain level before they can administer her chemotherapy.

A nurse injects the needle into Corbett's arm to hook the bag of methotrexate into. It took 20 minutes to get all the drug into Corbett and later that night Corbett began to feel the side effects. She told the Cape Breton Post on April 5 that she couldn't sleep all night even though she was exhausted because of how much she was vomiting from the drug. - Nikki Sullivan
A nurse injects the needle into Corbett's arm to hook the bag of methotrexate into. It took 20 minutes to get all the drug into Corbett and later that night Corbett began to feel the side effects. She told the Cape Breton Post on April 5 that she couldn't sleep all night even though she was exhausted because of how much she was vomiting from the drug. - Nikki Sullivan

The halls are empty at the Victoria General Hospital when she arrives at 2:45 p.m. and the blood collection office is closed, even though she was told by her medical team it would be open until 4 p.m. She has had a few miscommunications like this over the last eight-and-a-half months of weekly treatments in Halifax.

She heads up to the cancer centre on the fourth floor and catches the nurses just as they are about to leave. Surprised to see her, one stayed behind to take her blood work, which took about 10 minutes.

After the blood work, Corbett heads over to The Lodge That Gives, a support service provided by the Canadian Cancer Society.

It is 3:30 p.m. and Corbett heads to her room to lie down, with hopes of getting some relief from the pain, before supper at 4:30 p.m. She still hasn't eaten anything but decides to wait so she can save money - something she is cautious of every time she travels to Halifax. Even with flights and accommodations covered, the trips can be costly. A taxi from the airport is between $63 and $65.

The withdrawal symptoms aren't as constant but still come in waves; spasms of pain then bouts of nausea. At least she isn't throwing up.

After supper, she heads to her room for a bath. Screams of pain come from the bathroom as the muscle spasms worsen and the withdrawal symptoms increase. For the rest of the night, Corbett is woken from sleep crying out in pain and moaning as the spasms increase in pain. Otherwise, it is a dull ache in her muscles, bones and hips.

"It would be O.K. if I could go home and lie down but I have to take a plan and walk with a back pack after," she said, already dreading the travel home after her chemotherapy.

The next morning, Corbett gets breakfast just before 7 a.m. then goes back to bed. When it is time for her to get ready for her assessment and chemotherapy, she breaks down into defeated tears.

"I just got my leg to stop shaking. I just want to get some rest," she sobbed.

The withdrawal symptoms aren't as constant but still come in waves; spasms of pain then bouts of nausea. At least she isn't throwing up.

It takes her twice as long to get ready because of the pain and she gets to her appointment 15 minutes late. Starting with an assessment of her vitals and a questionnaire of how she is feeling, Corbett then has to wait until her chemotherapy, asparaginase, is ready. Each dose is made by the pharmacy department specifically for the individual patient and costs thousands of dollars. Corbett has been told each of her doses costs more than $7,500.

The drug is administered through a shot in Corbett's muscle. A side effect of the drug is muscle deterioration, which is why Corbett now gets it in the top part of her buttocks and not her thigh, which has wasted to almost nothing from getting the shot there.

Read more

At 10:45 a.m., the shot arrives and she gets it by 10:59 a.m. Then Corbett has to wait for an hour to make sure she has no adverse side effects.

Because she has a support person with her, something she has rarely had, she is able to sign a waiver to leave after 30 minutes. She does this to make sure she can get to meet the pilot for her return flight on time.

Corbett heads back to The Lodge, grabs lunch, checks out of her room and heads to the yoga room to try and stretch out her legs and hips before the flight home. Still going through withdrawal, Corbett can only stay on the floor for a few minutes before it becomes to painful.

Once home, Corbett spends the night dealing with more pain as the withdrawals continue and the chemotherapy side effect kick in. Unable to be touched, she stays on the sofa in the living room, peeling off T-shirts soaked in sweat and putting on new ones.

Unable to be touched, she stays on the sofa in the living room, peeling off T-shirts soaked in sweat and putting on new ones.

The next day she heads to the Cape Breton Regional Hospital for her methotrexate chemotherapy, which is administered intravenously. It has only been the last 10 weeks that Corbett could get this day of chemotherapy in Sydney. Before that, she had to spend an extra day in Halifax to get it there. After Corbett starts phase four of her treatment protocol at the end of April or beginning of May, she will be able to get all of her chemotherapy in Sydney and will go to Halifax monthly for doctor appointments.

Corbett's appointment at the Cape Breton Cancer Centre is for 1:30 p.m. and she gets her vitals checked and does another assessment. Then she waits until close to 3 p.m. to get in for her chemotherapy. By the time it arrives she has just enough time for the drug to be administered, which takes 20 minutes, and get to her 4 p.m. doctor appointment.

At the doctor's, she waits again. "I just want to be home. In bed. I don't want to wait anymore," she said, her face looking drained.

After the doctor, it is off to the pharmacy to fill prescriptions and then home - five hours after she left.

A nurse injects the asparaginase into part of Corbett's buttock muscle while Corbett cries a little in pain. The inter-muscle chemotherapy is best injected into large muscle groups to help reduce pain and help the medicine work. Corbett's injections started in her thighs but because her thigh muscles have almost completely deteriorated they needed to find a different place to inject. After the shot, Corbett has to sit for an hour to make sure there is no reaction. She said she could feel the asparaginase moving around her muscle, trying to find a place to settle, which was evidently adding to her discomfort. - Nikki Sullivan
A nurse injects the asparaginase into part of Corbett's buttock muscle while Corbett cries a little in pain. The inter-muscle chemotherapy is best injected into large muscle groups to help reduce pain and help the medicine work. Corbett's injections started in her thighs but because her thigh muscles have almost completely deteriorated they needed to find a different place to inject. After the shot, Corbett has to sit for an hour to make sure there is no reaction. She said she could feel the asparaginase moving around her muscle, trying to find a place to settle, which was evidently adding to her discomfort. - Nikki Sullivan

The next day she wakes to feel the withdrawal symptoms have stopped.

"It's like when your flu is gone and you can finally think straight," she said, happily.

After the withdrawal and sweats stop, Corbett is finally able to get five hours sleep. It's the first solid sleep she has had in close to a week.

But the relief doesn't last long. By night, the methotrexate side effects hit and she's vomiting for hours.

It's the ups and downs of the chemotherapy treatment Corbett has come to know as well as the back of her hand, which has caused so much havoc on her body she can now hear her bones rub together when she moves them.

Knowing her next phase is going to be fully at home helps Corbett keep on. Being able to just go home after an appointment or treatment is going to feel like heaven to Corbett - home in 10 minutes versus home in four to eight hours.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a Cape Breton Post special report taking a closer look at Nova Scotia’s health-care system and the experience of a patient with cancer. 

READ MORE

nicole.sullivan@cbpost.com

Recent Stories