COVID-19 surge halts elective surgeries for thousands of Washingtonians, including cancer survivor

Several thousands of people in Washington are waiting for elective surgeries and procedures as a result of the pandemic and as the state sees its highest transmission rate ever. 

With historic case numbers filling the hospitals, patients waiting for non-urgent procedures wonder when they will ever receive care.

"I just want to get back a sense of normalcy. I know I’m not the only one," said Shannon McAndrews, a cancer survivor, who is waiting for a surgery that would complete a very long journey since her diagnosis of stage two breast cancer.

"It would be life-changing. I have been waiting since the day I was diagnosed to put this behind me. I lost my mom to metastatic breast cancer when I was 20 years old and I know the impact that takes on your family," said McAndrews.

McAndrews was diagnosed in April 2020. She currently lives in eastern Washington, but grew up in western Washington. Shannon said she felt she would receive the best care in Seattle and decided to begin her treatment in the city. She traveled back and forth to undergo 20 weeks of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and then another surgery to remove cancerous lymph nodes from both armpits. She stayed in Seattle with her two young children to complete five weeks of daily radiation therapy. 

"Thankfully, we had a family member over there who welcomed us into her home, kind of took us in and took care of us while my husband stayed in eastern Washington and worked and made money for our family and our medical bills," she said.

After finishing radiation therapy, McAndrews’ final step to life after cancer was reconstructive surgery. She said the procedure would use tissue from her stomach and be transplanted to her chest. 

"The procedure is 10-12 hours and requires multiple surgeons because of the extent of the surgery and the amount of time it takes," said McAndrews.

RELATED: UW Medicine postpones non-urgent surgeries due to recent COVID surge

It’s an appointment challenging to get. And once she did, doctors had to postpone it. This was due to a record number of COVID-19 cases overwhelming hospitals across Washington, and the state putting a pause on all elective surgeries.

"It was kind of a gut punch. It took the wind out of my sails for sure," she said. "Pretty devastated about the setback. And it just is frustrating when I’ve been doing everything that I‘m supposed to do. My family has been quarantining. And we have made sure we are being cautious and that we all stay healthy. And then this happens."

She said the reconstructive surgery is rescheduled for November 2022, but is hopeful she may not have to wait that long.

Though Omicron infection rates are the worst the state has seen throughout the pandemic, scientists said it may be the key to an endemic. During a media briefing on Friday, world-renowned Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation said its new projections show the pandemic—from a policy standpoint—could end as early as this spring in the U.S.

"We think that because this [Omicron] wave will move quickly through the population, we will go into this period where the immunological exposure to COVID is so much higher—both from vaccination and infection—that we won’t see restrictions return. So, I think we will go back to normal in the sense that we won’t have major restrictions on behavior, and that COVID becomes endemic. It just becomes a disease that we will have to manage," said Dr. Christopher Murray, of IHME. 

It’s promising news for McAndrews, hoping to put the pandemic and cancer behind her, sooner than later.

"Oh my gosh! Yeah, if I could get in sooner than November, I told the person who called me the other day I will be ready tomorrow! I’ve been waiting for 16 months, I would hate to have to wait for two years for surgery," said McAndrews. "Just to be able to check this surgery off the list and move forward with our lives would just mean everything and be so helpful. I’ve been waiting a really long time."

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