One family claims their father was sent home to die because the machine – which treats up to 45 patients a day – wasn’t working at the time he was referred to the oncology department.
Replacement parts for the machine need to be ordered from overseas – hence the long wait.
There are also several children on the waiting list.
When Khayalethu Plaatjie, 51, was diagnosed, his doctors were confident that radiation treatment could still buy him another five or six years.
But Plaatjie’s family say the hospital sent him home with morphine because the radiation machine was not working.
Plaatjie’s son Bongani said he was completely heartbroken over what had happened to his dad who died last month.
Plaatjie ran his own business but did not have medical aid.
“He went to the hospital with a swollen leg. He had excellent doctors and they found out that he had cancer,” Bongani said.
“He was transferred for treatment to the oncology department. The doctors told us he could still live for five of six years if he gets radiation.”
But at the time the radiation machine was out of order and only a limited number of patients could receive treatment at a private facility for 35 days.
The Eastern Cape health department has denied anybody was turned away, with spokesman Sizwe Kupelo saying they managed to outsource treatment to a private company for 35 days, with between 45 and 50 patients receiving treatment.
But Bongani said his father received no treatment.
“They just gave him morphine and sent him home to die. He went back to complain that the side-effects of the morphine were troubling him. They didn’t even listen,” Bongani claimed.
“They could at least have tried. They just did nothing. We are all very sad and frustrated.”
Livingstone Hospital CEO Thulane Madonsela said they currently had 300 patients on the waiting list for radiation and each of them waits for between four and five months for treatment.
He said the hospital only had one radiation machine. Hospital sources confirmed that several of the patients waiting for treatment were children.
Madonsela said the machine was out of order for eight weeks last year, for close to three months in 2016, and for two months in 2015.
“If the machine is working without errors we can treat up to 45 patients a day,” he said.
Kupelo said the reason it took so long for the machine to be fixed every time was that parts had to be ordered from overseas.
In June last year, the South African Human Rights Commission found that the KwaZulu-Natal health department was violating patients’ constitutional rights to health as broken machines, long waiting times and a lack of doctors crippled the service in the public sector.
In his findings, SAHRC CEO Advocate Tseliso Thipanyane said: “The department [of health] has a duty to act in a preemptive way to diagnose and provide early treatment . . . It should not be a case where cancer patients are attended to once their condition has become critical . . .”
Linda Greeff, the chairwoman of the Cancer Alliance, which includes organizations such as the Igazi Foundation, CANSA, and CHOC, said the long waiting times were completely unacceptable.
“The devastating truth is that patients who have cancer will already access specialist treatment late because the referral system from the clinics is not well established. They are diagnosed late, they have to wait for scans and biopsies, and then they also have to wait months for treatment.
“In the private sector, patients will be able to access scans in days and start treatment at the latest in two weeks.”
Greeff said the Cancer Alliance believed the solution would be for the Department of Health to create a public-private partnership for radiation treatment.
“The private sector should agree to treat state patients at a reasonable cost,” she said.
Greeff said it was unacceptable that patients with completely curable cancers died because they could not access treatment soon enough.
“Our cancer patients in the state sector do not have a voice. People are just not hearing them. The state should develop the capacity for not only treatment but also for palliative care to relieve the pain of those dying of cancer,” she said.
“Any type of waiting list for prostate, cervical and breast cancers is an utter disgrace.”
Kupelo did not answer questions on the issue but said as a sign of their commitment to cancer sufferers they had “advanced plans” to build a new oncology unit at the Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital in Mthatha.