Joycelyn’s Story

Joycelyn’s Story: Fighting for a Cancer Diagnosis During a Global Pandemic

When Joycelyn St. Cyr discovered a hard lump in her breast in the fall of 2019, she knew right away that it could be serious: it felt much different from the benign cysts she’d become familiar with over the years as a result of having fibrocystic breasts.

But because of her history of cysts, St. Cyr’s physician at another downtown hospital advised her that it was likely just another harmless fluid-filled sac. He asked her to come back in May of 2020 for a follow-up appointment, just to be sure.

“I always self-examine, and I knew that spot was different,” says St. Cyr. “But I figured I’d wait until the next appointment and ask for more tests at that point.”

Then COVID-19 swept the world.

By May, most healthcare clinics not caring for COVID-19 patients had shut down – not only across Canada, but around the world. St. Cyr’s appointment was cancelled, rebooked, cancelled and rebooked again.

Finally, she got in for her follow up appointment on August 25 – nearly a year after first finding the lump. From there, it took her seven weeks of persistence and countless phone calls to receive a referral for an ultrasound and a biopsy.

After even more delays as Ontario began experiencing its second wave of COVID-19, she asked to be referred to Women’s College Hospital, where she previously had positive healthcare experiences.

Shortly after that, St. Cyr received the diagnosis she’d been expecting all along: it was cancer.

While St. Cyr undergoes treatment with support from the Peter Gilgan Centre for Women’s Cancers, she is passionate about encouraging others to fight for their right to healthcare – even in the midst of a global pandemic.

“COVID-19 became the priority and people with other illnesses have been overlooked,” she says. “I want to encourage other women in a similar situation to pick up the phone and call when you know something is wrong. Listen to your instincts, your intuition; get a second opinion if you’re not satisfied with the answers you’re receiving.”

St. Cyr’s experience of not feeling heard and having challenges accessing care in a timely manner is an increasingly common feature of the COVID-19 pandemic. A combination of clinic closures, disrupted processes, redeployed healthcare providers and fear of entering healthcare spaces on the part of patients has resulted in significant decreases in cancer screenings and cancer diagnoses in every part of Canada.

During the first wave of the pandemic, for example, the Ontario Breast Screening Program reported a 97% decrease in screenings for mammograms, while the Ontario Cervical Screening Program reported an 88% decrease in the number of Pap tests taking place throughout the province.

“The healthcare system is expecting a major influx of cancer cases – some at more advanced stages than we’d typically see,” says Dr. Ruth Heisey, Chief of Family and Community Medicine at WCH, which has also seen a reduction in cancer screenings and diagnoses.

To encourage more women to seek help, the hospital has launched several initiatives – including an ongoing social media campaign – to raise awareness of the importance of regular check-ups, cancer screening and symptoms that should not be ignored. The hospital is also working hard to let the community know it’s still offering a full range of programs and services, many of which have now shifted to virtual platforms.

St. Cyr says that WCH not only gave her the diagnosis she waited so long for, but the hospital’s unique expertise in healthcare for women – and her devout Christian faith – gave her great comfort on her journey, which is still ongoing today.

“I thank God every day for guiding me on this journey and for the people He puts in my life, like the doctors and nurses at WCH” she says. “And the hospital’s focus on women has made a world of difference. We need people who understand and validate how we’re feeling, who trust us when we say we feel something different. Most times, as women, we’re never wrong!”