Kirsten Watson was weeks away last year from losing access to potentially life-saving medication — a situation she found herself in because Ontario does not cover the cost of take-home cancer drugs.

The 43-year-old is on medication to help prevent a recurrence of breast cancer after being diagnosed in 2020. She lost her job last year due to downsizing at her company. Along with her income, she stood to lose coverage through her employer's benefits for the $7,000 worth of medication a month her oncologist has prescribed.

"To know that there's this treatment that was so important to be on, and the stress of not being able to potentially have it, it's near debilitating," Watson said in an interview.

"So during a time when I should have been focusing on getting my resume scrubbed up to start applying for jobs and starting to think about finding other employment, I was instead stressing and burdened with how am I going to be able to continue my cancer treatment when I no longer have benefit coverage?"

Watson's former employer extended her benefits coverage for a period of time after she was laid off, and it was only weeks away from expiring when she found another job where the cost of some of the medication is covered. A patient support program at the manufacturer of one of the drugs is paying the balance.

But she knows not everyone going through cancer treatment has private insurance and wants to see the province cover those oral medications. Having cancer and receiving treatment itself is a tremendous burden, Watson said.

"You have the stress of receiving a diagnosis, going through treatment, dealing with the side-effects that are part of treatment — you're very much dealing with the cancer, which is a huge stress already," she said.

The Canadian Cancer Society is calling on Ontario to fund take-home cancer drugs in the same way as medications to treat cancer that are administered through IV in hospital.

"Ontario is one of the only provinces, other than Atlantic Canada, that does not cover oral cancer medication," the society's Ontario advocacy manager Hillary Buchan-Terrell recently told a legislative committee hearing pre-budget submissions.

"The cost-of-living crisis is at the forefront for most Ontarians. They should not have to worry about choosing to pay their mortgage or their cancer treatment."

It's not a new request. The cancer society has been advocating for oral medication coverage for more than a decade. There was a glimmer of hope in the 2022 budget, promising an advisory table to explore improving access to the drugs, but to date no progress has been made, Buchan-Terrell said.

When asked about that commitment, a spokesperson for Health Minister Sylvia Jones pointed back to the two-year-old budget promise.

"Ontario will continue to work with key stakeholders, subject matter experts and federal, provincial and territorial partners to identify additional initiatives to achieve long‐term sustainability of public drug programs," Hannah Jensen wrote in a statement.

"The government is also committed to bringing together an advisory table to explore improvements to access to take-home cancer drugs."

The Canadian Cancer Society estimates that covering the medication would cost the province between $17 million and $44 million a year, depending on whether it goes with a first-payer model or acts as a backup for patients without enough private coverage.

Watson said she was ultimately lucky to find another job with benefits coverage, but said she should not have had to limit her search in that way just because of where in Canada she lived.

"I can't help but think, if I lived in another province, I wouldn't have to be going through this," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 28, 2024.