Julia Wolf’s eyes focused on the melanoma poster fixed to the examination room door. The 19-year-old thought there was a chance the freckle on her leg might be one of the “less dangerous” forms of skin cancer.
Wolf told the walk-in clinic doctor her freckle had certain signs of cancer. It itched and changed shape over time.
He laughed and told her she was too young for that.
“He basically made me feel like an idiot for even asking,” said Wolf, now 28 and diagnosed with metastatic melanoma. “Yeah I was 19, but it turns out you’re not too young at the age of 19.
“If he had sent me to a dermatologist or looked into it, I could have caught it early on, but he just didn’t take it seriously.”
While the spot grew and changed, Wolf sought more medical help, but like that first encounter, she continued to hear the same message: she was too young to have skin cancer – she was healthy. Seven doctors later, she had little more than diagnoses of dry skin, a wart and hypochondria.
Years after that first clinic visit, another doctor suggested Wolf’s daily waves of nausea were allergic reactions to work.
“He was really rude and I felt embarrassed. It’s all because I was young and it pisses me off because it’s my life. I expected somebody to give a damn and nobody did. Everybody can go on their merry way and I’m dying.”
In October 2008 when she was pregnant with her son Lucas, Wolf demanded to see a dermatologist and was finally diagnosed.Each trip to the oncologist has revealed more bad news. The single mother living in Saanich has now endured one round of chemotherapy and four surgeries to remove tumours and lymph nodes from her leg.
It’s quite rare that melanoma, the most aggressive form of skin cancer, develops in someone as young as Wolf. For the 10-year period from 2000-09, there was an average of 11 cases diagnosed each year in B.C. Exposure to UV light, particularly intense sun exposure during childhood, which Wolf says she has had, greatly increases the risk of developing skin cancer.
Wolf now has the medical assistance of two dermatologists, an oncologist, a family doctor, a radiation specialist and two surgeons – but when it comes to help at home, she’s struggling.
Wolf has been unable to return to her position as a postal worker since her diagnosis and is primarily concerned with providing for Lucas. She hopes to secure help with his childcare. Ideally, that would include moving into affordable accommodations in Duncan where she could live near her best friend, Elisha Morrison, who regularly travels to Victoria to watch Lucas when she can. Morrison, Wolf’s support and mother to two, is named in Wolf’s will as Lucas’ guardian.
Wolf’s friends have established a trust fund to provide for Lucas’ future. They’ve also begun fundraising to send the duo on a summer vacation. Wolf would like to take her son to see Legoland in California.
Wolf’s oncologist has given her a 20 per cent chance of living another five years and suggested she take the trip this year.
“She went to doctor after doctor after doctor saying: ‘This thing is itchy; my wart is itchy’ and they kept saying: ‘Don’t worry about it,’” said Morrison, who does her best to provide help for her friend, although living in Duncan makes it tough.
“All people, women and men, need to know, if you feel something is bad and wrong, you have to do something about it,” Wolf said. “You can’t just let them tell you it’s OK.”
Wolf investigated the prospect of taking legal action for the negligent medical care she received, but learned that given the number of different doctors who had dismissed her concerns, both on the Mainland and in Greater Victoria, she was left with little recourse.
Wolf’s medical care prior to her diagnosis – marked by walk-in clinic after walk-in clinic without the consistency of a family doctor – is typical of how many people seek medical help in the face of few doctors accepting new patients in Greater Victoria.
While at the release of their last annual report, in June 2011, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia boasted having made steps toward improving the issue of patients left without family doctors by licensing 387 new physicians in B.C., the stage is set for another story like Wolf’s to recur. As of Dec. 31, 2011, the college had 10,842 active general practitioners in the province and 575 accepting new patients. Only four doctors in Greater Victoria are accepting new patients. Of those, each has stipulations on who they will accept and none of the offices are in Saanich.
“I’m upset because I never got good medical care,” Wolf said. “When you’re young, people don’t take you very seriously. … It makes me so angry because (clinics) all have that skin cancer poster in their offices. Why do they have it there if it’s something they don’t take seriously?”
Help Julia and Lucas
A trust fund has been set up for Lucas through Island Savings Credit Union, West Shore. Donations can be made to the Julia and Lucas Wolf trust at any Island Savings via account #2219467 (WS). For more info on ways to help, contact Morrison at firstname.lastname@example.org or 250-597-7947.