Manitoba woman fighting cancer wants vaccine eligibility expanded to those under 40 with health conditions

A shot of a COVID-19 vaccine would mean more freedom to Brenda Millan.

“When you have underlying health conditions, you really got to weigh your risks just for the smallest things,” the 34-year-old Winnipegger says.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time last November and just finished chemotherapy about a month ago. 

Her family does most of her shopping, to cut down the risk of her getting COVID-19 while fighting cancer. 

“My mom, my sister pretty much do all of that for me,” she said. “I do not go into very many stores.”

Millan isn’t currently eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine in Manitoba. The general eligibility age for vaccination is 50 and up, or 30 and up for First Nations people. The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is available to those 40 and over. 

In certain areas designated as COVID-19 “hot spots,” all residents 18 and older, and specific front-line workers, are also eligible — but Millan’s Transcona neighbourhood isn’t included on that list.

Brenda Millan, 34, was diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time in November 2020. She wants people in Manitoba who are under the age of 40 and have underlying health issues to be eligible for COVID-19 vaccination. (Submitted by Brenda Millan)

She wants all Manitobans who are under the age of 40 and have underlying health issues to be eligible for a vaccine. That would make her feel more comfortable going out to do things on her own, she says.

“As an adult, just being able to do more for myself and not relying on family to do it for me.” 

Some other provinces in Canada, including Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, have opened eligibility for people in Millan’s age group with certain medical conditions to get a COVID-19 vaccine. In some cases, people receive a letter from their doctors saying they’re eligible. 

The government of Canada lists a range of conditions that mean people could be at increased risk for more severe outcomes from COVID-19. 

That list specifically mentions people who have medical conditions such as cancer, or are taking medications that lower the immune system, giving chemotherapy as an example.

People with chronic medical conditions such as lung disease, heart disease and diabetes are also on that list.

‘Impossible decisions’ on vaccine priority: Reimer

Dr. Joss Reimer, the medical lead for Manitoba’s vaccination task force, said Wednesday that the province’s medical advisory table is looking at how the province might be able to expand eligibility to include people under 40 with certain underlying health conditions.

“It’s a challenging assessment because there are so many different health conditions and so much variation even within a health condition,” said Reimer.

“Largely speaking, for those who are immunocompromised, the increased risk associated with COVID is not that much higher than the general population, and certainly not as high as it is for folks with things like chronic kidney disease.”

Earlier this year, Manitoba prioritized people from age 50 to 64 and First Nations people age 30 to 64 with certain medical conditions for the AstraZeneca vaccine. But the province later changed eligibility rules for AstraZeneca, and that priority no longer applies. 

Reimer said the province is trying to reach people they believe are most at risk for COVID-19 with the vaccine supply that’s available. 

“These are impossible decisions,” she said at a news conference Wednesday.

“We are constantly having to choose between one group or another because we don’t have enough doses. And this weighs very heavily on the team. A lot of us have friends or family members [with health conditions], and some members of the team themselves have these health conditions that make them feel stressed about COVID as well.”

Millan feels like people in her situation are being ignored. 

“You look every day,” she said. “I watch the updates and just nothing, nothing, nothing. So your hope is diminished.”

CancerCare Manitoba advises patients speak with their doctors about vaccine timing and their treatment. 

Millan said she was told to get the shot when she can. 

Now she’s left waiting for a chance to book her appointment.