SYDNEY, N.S. — The western sandwich Kathy Timmons ate on June 17 was “fit for a king.”
It was the first sandwich the 58-year-old Sydney woman was able to eat without choking in more than a year due to cancer treatment; treatment that included two surgeries and 35 rounds of radiation on her neck area. Treatment that might not be over.
“To me, it was heaven. I couldn’t believe it. And I actually tasted it. It was a big hurdle (to overcome) in my house to say I sat down and ate a sandwich,” said the Timmons during a phone interview on June 23.
“I couldn’t taste before because radiation kills all your taste buds. I have no saliva ducts.”
Timmons’s cancer journey started in February 2021, when she had surgery to remove a tumour in her neck. The surgeon found three tumours that were removed. At the time, three doctors believed it wasn’t cancer.
In March 2021, a biopsy showed the tumours had spread to lymph nodes and another surgery was planned. This time, cancer was detected and along with lymph nodes being removed, so was Timmons’ tonsil and part of the base of her tongue.
Eating since the surgeries has been difficult. Along with losing her taste, a ring had to be implanted in her throat to help with swallowing.
When she was able to eat that western sandwich on June 17, Timmons was shocked as much as she was ecstatic.
However, it didn’t last long as Timmons had to have dental surgery on June 28 to remove all her teeth due to damage from the radiation. And a second surgery might be needed.
A PET scan in April also revealed three new spots which might be cancer, yet more hurdles for Timmons to find the strength to overcome.
But Timmons is exhausted and you can hear it in her voice as she fights back tears. Part of this exhaustion is from fighting for her life.
The other part is from fighting to be approved for Canada Pension Plan (CPP) disability benefits.
“Cancer has taken everything from me … It’s taken my self-respect, my pride because I feel like I have to beg our government to help me. If it wasn’t for family and friends, for them to help me, I don’t know how I would have got through. But something has to change with our system,” said Timmons.
“I’ve worked since I was 15 years old, off and on. I’ve had lots of jobs. I’m not a lazy person. And to get to a point in your life where you’re fighting to stay alive and your government won’t help you, it’s not fair. (It’s) something I paid into. It’s not like I feel I’m entitled to anything but I feel like I’ve worked most of my life that I should be able to get help when I need it.”
Timmons’s first job was at a bakery in Port Morien and she’s had a number of other jobs over her roughly 44-year working career.
From 2004-2011, Timmons worked at an Esso gas station. During this time, her ex-husband died due to cancer in December 2008 and her daughter died suddenly three months later.
“I was back to work two weeks after my daughter died,” Timmons said.
In 2011, she had to leave her job to be a full-time caregiver for an immediate family member battling a serious illness.
By 2012, the family member had recovered and Timmons began working at MacGillivray Guest Home where she was employed for three years.
From here she moved on to a recycling warehouse in Sydney, where Timmons worked as an office manager.
When her mother, who had dementia, broke her hip in 2017 and needed full-time care, Timmons took leave to do so. She still worked part-time at the recycling warehouse until her mother needed more round-the-clock care.
After her mother’s death in 2019, Timmons returned to work at the warehouse as well as two other jobs.
Working full-time until her first surgery in February 2021, Timmons first received the maximum 15-week Employment Insurance (EI) sick benefits.
That ended in May 2021 and Timmons believed she’d be able to return to work after her radiation treatments finished the next month. But she hasn’t been able to.
“The radiation has taken its toll on me,” she said. “I’ve had no energy, no strength. I keep losing my voice off and on, like, if I lose my voice it’s just because of everything that’s going on.”
In February 2022, Timmons applied for CPP disability benefits and has been denied due to the breaks in her employment over the past six years, as well as not contributing enough in one of the past six years.
“It doesn’t matter if you worked 30 years and then had a break for two years, you wouldn’t qualify,” Timmons said.
“I don’t understand the qualification. I figure you’re sick, if you’re diagnosed with cancer and you’re fighting to live, you shouldn’t have to fight to survive.”
If you’re diagnosed with cancer and you’re fighting to live, you shouldn’t have to fight to survive.
– Kathy Timmons
An interview request sent on June 24 to the media relations office for the Department of Employment and Social Development Canada could not be accommodated. Instead, written questions were submitted and a response was received Thursday morning.
In the emailed response, media relations officer Saskia Rodenburg explained CPP disability benefits are meant to be a partial income supplement.
“They are supplementary to other forms of assistance, such as private disability insurance plans, provincial social assistance benefits, workers’ compensation programs and private investments and savings,” Rodenburg explained.
“Applicants must have made CPP contributions in at least four of the last six years or three of the last six years for those with 25 years or more of contributions.”
Rodenburg also explained applicants have to have been in the workforce recently and there are provisions for people out of the workforce due to needing to care for children under the age of seven.
“No such provision currently exists to protect time out of the workforce for the care of others,” said Rodenburg.
Timmons doesn’t understand why her time off to be a caregiver of a dying parent isn’t included as a provision.
“(When your parent is sick and needs a caregiver) do you think in your mind, ‘Oh, what’s going to happen in three years time, four years time if I get cancer, will I get denied Canada Pension?'” Timmons said.
Without income, Timmons has to rely on her partner to pay the bills and admits having to rely so much on family and friends makes her feel like a “burden.”
“Should you have to fight to get your Canada Pension disability when you are diagnosed with cancer? Should you have that worry of income coming in to help keep your house afloat?” she said.
“Like I told them at the government office the other day, I said, ‘You know what? I have three more spots and if it’s cancer, I’m not taking treatments.’ Why fight to live when I can’t afford to live?”
Timmons contacted Cape Breton-Canso MP Mike Kelloway’s office twice for help over the past couple of months.
Kelloway wasn’t available for a phone interview due to illness but did answer questions via email.
Speaking generally and not about any specific cases, Kelloway said he’s been having meetings to speak about needed changes to health-care program delivery.
“I believe we need to look at new ways of providing benefits to prevent any Canadians … from falling through the cracks of the existing programs,” he said.
“I hear a number of stories each year of people being denied CPP disability, as does my team.”
Kelloway said anyone needing help with CPP disability applications or other federal assistance forms can call his office and they’ll guide them.
Rodenburg said there are other forms of assistance available for people with disabilities or battling severe illnesses. These resources can be found at http://www.canadabenefits.gc.ca.
Timmons believes changes need to happen so people can fight for their health, not for some income.
“I’m sure I’m not the only one out there,” she said.