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COMMENTARY: I was diagnosed with cancer at age 36. My life will never be the same – Global News

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It’s a well-known statistic that approximately 50 per cent of Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. I knew there was a reasonable chance that it could happen to me.

What I didn’t know was that my time would come so soon.

In 2019, at the age of 36, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 invasive ductal carcinoma — a.k.a. locally advanced breast cancer.

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My children were one and three years old when I was blindsided with the diagnosis. I say blindsided because, up until the day my family doctor called to give me the results of my biopsy, everyone had assured me “it’s probably nothing. You’re too young to be diagnosed with cancer.”

Technically, they weren’t wrong: breast cancer in women under the age of 40 is rare. Only about seven per cent of those diagnosed with breast cancer have yet to clear their 30s.


Attending my first chemo session at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in March 2019.


Michelle Butterfield

Yet, there I was. Diagnosed with an aggressive cancer just as I was starting my young family, making strides in my career and crafting plans for the future. I didn’t have time for this inconvenient, life-threatening bomb that was suddenly dropped into my lap.

But that’s the thing about cancer — it doesn’t care how old you are. It doesn’t give a s**t about your plans or goals. And it doesn’t discriminate.

Immediately, I was thrown into a medical system that wasn’t designed for someone my age. There was no hospital daycare to help mind my children, I had to make immediate and distressing decisions about my fertility, hair and breasts, and the cancer support groups offered through my hospital were (by no fault of their own) definitely where I felt the loneliest as the youngest person in the room. It was depressing and isolating.

I remember being so desperate for someone I could relate to in the days after my diagnosis, I followed a young woman around the grocery store who had the telltale signs of losing her hair from chemo. Her head was freshly shaved and I could see little bald patches starting to appear in places. I never mustered up the courage to talk to her, but even being in her orbit for a short period of time made me feel a tiny bit better. Just knowing that someone else my age was going through the same thing was a salve.


My hair started falling out by the fistful a couple of weeks after my first chemotherapy infusion.


Michelle Butterfield

Looking back, that behaviour seems a bit creepy, but it highlights how rare cancer is in young adults. I was receiving an avalanche of medical information and trying to process what was happening to my life, but I was most fixated on finding a friend who also had cancer — someone I could talk to, someone who would really understand.

A late diagnosis

Cancer in young adults is often diagnosed at later stages than those in older cohorts for a number of reasons. Young adults are typically healthy, meaning they might be less likely to visit a doctor until they really need to. Many young adults do not have a regular doctor. And when they do go see one, cancer is not high on the list of investigated diseases because cancer is not common in people under 40.

My diagnosis followed the latter pattern. It took a few months for anyone to consider that the lump in my breast was something other than blocked milk ducts from breastfeeding my son. I try not to dabble too much in the “what ifs” of my diagnosis, but I can’t help but wonder how long the cancer was growing inside me and if my life expectancy would be better had someone investigated earlier.

There was pressure to get me into a chemo chair as fast as possible, as my five-centimetre tumour was growing quickly thanks to an aggressive cancer subtype. The goal was to shrink the tumour with eight cycles of chemo before having surgery to remove the cancerous area and affected lymph nodes, and then blast it with daily radiation for six weeks.

Six months after finishing my initial treatments, coinciding with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I would be diagnosed with another form of breast cancer — an extremely rare type had existed alongside my original tumour but was undiagnosed, again, because the doctors thought I was “too young” for this particular type of cancer. I dodged the chemo chair on my second dance with the disease, luckily, but I was left with only one breast, heightened post-traumatic stress disorder, and a stronger feeling that my body, not to mention the Canadian medical system, had failed me.

The distress of surviving cancer

The whole time I was being treated for cancer, I couldn’t wait to get to the “finish line,” the day that I finally crossed off all the chemo and surgeries, the 33 rounds of daily radiation, the weekly blood work, the scans, the additional five months of targeted therapy.


Fighting back tears in the spring of 2020, waiting to speak to an oncologist because I knew I still had cancer in my body but wasn’t being taken seriously by my medical team.


Michelle Butterfield

What I didn’t know was living with cancer in my body would be less distressing than living life as a cancer survivor. My hair grew back, signalling to the outside world that I was “better,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I will never fully shed this disease, no matter how long I remain in remission.

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I recently came across a quote on Instagram that sums up my post-cancer life in the most heart-wrenching way: “Just because I’m living disease-free doesn’t mean I’m free of this disease.” There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about cancer, worry that it’s going to come back, try to quell intrusive thoughts that I might not live to grow old with my husband and watch our children grow up.

Helping others while healing myself

I have done my very best to be an advocate for young cancer patients, which, I have learned, is a double-edged sword. I want nothing more than to help other young breast cancer patients feel less alone. I lend my voice and time to a host of organizations and fundraisers, I create opportunities for young cancer survivors to connect, and I share openly and with vulnerability on social media.

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When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer I happened to stumble across a group of other young women in my city who were going through the same ordeal. The “Pink Ladies” (now the Southern Alberta Breasties) would regularly meet for coffee, walks and chats, and they invited me into their cancer club with open arms.

That group provided, and continues to provide, a lifeline for me. A cancer diagnosis early in life is isolating, and the vast majority of my peers have never had to face their own mortality in such an abrupt way, nor deal with the aftermath of such a traumatic life event. The Breasties get it. They speak the language of cancer and know that part of my heart.

Over the past three years, our members have worked tirelessly to catch other young women coming into the cancer system, offering them a soft place to land surrounded by other people who have walked the same path. When I was welcomed into the group there were about 12 members. Now there are 200.


Kerri (R), another young woman with breast cancer, and I got our heads shaved at a barber to celebrate the end of our chemotherapy treatments in the summer of 2019.


Michelle Butterfield

The founding member of the Breasties, a beautiful young woman by the name of Marloes, passed away from metastatic breast cancer last summer. I would visit with her often while she was dying, watching her eventually become deaf from the tumours growing in her brain. She never complained, never felt sorry for herself. She understood how precious her time on Earth was, and she milked every beautiful moment from it until she couldn’t anymore.

One of Marloes’ dying wishes was that the Breasties would continue on without her, that we would always continue to seek out other young women and make sure they had cancer survivors in their corner. She made me promise that the group would continue and I will never go back on that promise.

But making that promise means I’m now the unofficial go-to for the group. Every week there’s a newly diagnosed woman sliding into my direct messages, showing an agonizing amount of vulnerability while they desperately search for someone who understands and can help carry their pain.

This is my double-edged sword. It’s heartbreaking work and I relive my own diagnosis each time I learn of another woman who has this hideous disease. My therapist suggested that I back away from the role from time to time, and I do, but I never want any young woman to feel a fraction of the pain and fear I felt in the weeks after my diagnosis. While it’s extremely fulfilling to help others in this way, it’s a stark reminder that the cancer system is severely lacking in its setup to support those affected by a diagnosis at a young age.

A series exploring young cancer

My time in Cancerland, as I’ve been known to call it, has opened my eyes to the unique and frustrating challenges young adults face in the wake of cancer. I’ve shared my story many times, but it’s been a goal to create an in-depth series exploring some of these challenges.


My children were so young when I was first diagnosed with cancer. I am grateful they have few memories from that time, but feel cheated that I missed so much of this special time because I was feeling weak and run down.


Michelle Butterfield

The launch of this series coincides with the beginning of Breast Cancer Awareness month. To outsiders, it’s a sparkly and energetic month dedicated to what has somehow been framed as “the good type of cancer.” To many breast cancer survivors, it’s a stark reminder of a cancer that devastates families, disfigures bodies and steals too many good people. No kind of cancer is “fun,” and no kind of cancer is a “good” kind of cancer.

Against All Odds: Young Canadians & Cancer is an examination of the barriers young cancer patients deal with while accessing life-saving therapies and treatments. It’s also a look into the difficulties many young Canadians face following a cancer diagnosis: the impact on mental health, its effect on families and caretakers and the disappointing and disfiguring changes that often fall on undeserving people.

And while cancer is horrible, this series is also a celebration of those young people who are making the most of a bad situation. The people who fight back at their disease with humour and grace, as well as the organizations who are doing wonderful work to change the way young Canadians navigate cancer.

I would be remiss not to mention that I have always been cognizant and grateful for my own relative privilege. I am a white, cisgender woman who’s had the means and support to take as much time as I needed to recover and heal. I live in a major Canadian city, close to Calgary’s cancer centre and other medical facilities. I had access to unlimited therapy, a decent insurance plan and an amazing support system. For the most part, I received excellent care and my treatment (as far as I know) was successful.


At my lowest point, both physically and mentally, during my initial cancer treatment in 2019. I had lost all my facial hair and was very sick from the accumulated chemotherapy.


Michelle Butterfield

Many people aren’t afforded the same, and with that in mind, we will hear from marginalized and racialized cancer patients and their families, as well as those who don’t live near major cancer hubs. Our series will speak to people across the country with different types of cancer, both men and women, at different stages.

Cancer is not a monolithic illness, but rather a series of separate and varying diseases that are often lumped together. Cancer, and the way it moves and multiplies in each body, is complex and unique. For this reason, no two cancer diagnoses are the same and every person deals with and manages their cancer diagnosis differently.

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But there are common threads that almost all those who are diagnosed with cancer as a young adult can relate to: the fear and the unknown, the search for community and meaning in a diagnosis, the guilt in watching this disease take the lives of others, and trying to pick up the pieces of a life and fit them back together while living in a body that has betrayed you.

My hope is that this series shines a light on some of the systemic issues and barriers young adults face when dealing with a cancer diagnosis. I also hope this series highlights some of the Canadian organizations that are doing excellent work in the young adult cancer space.

But, ultimately, if even one person feels less alone after reading this series, then I consider it a success.

‘Against All Odds: Young Canadians & Cancer’ is a biweekly ongoing Global News series looking at the realities young adults face when they receive a cancer diagnosis.

Examining issues like institutional and familial support, medicine and accessibility, any roadblocks as well as positive developments in the space, the series shines a light on what it’s like to deal with the life-changing disease.

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Cobourg resident first at Peterborough Regional Health Centre to receive new cancer treatment – kawarthaNOW.com

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Two years ago, Cobourg resident Stuart Morley became the first-ever patient at Peterborough Regional Health Centre (PRHC) to receive life-changing cancer treatment by interventional radiology-radiofrequency ablation for a tumour on his kidney. (Photo courtesy of PRHC Foundation)

Two years ago, a doctor looked at a CT scan of Stuart Morley’s kidney and saw a tumour. It was small — only 15 millimetres — but the Cobourg resident was over 80 years old, so major surgery wasn’t the best option for him. Instead, he was a candidate for a minimally invasive interventional radiology procedure.

Stuart became the first-ever patient at Peterborough Regional Health Centre (PRHC) to receive life-changing cancer treatment by interventional radiology-radiofrequency ablation.

The amateur photographer and retired radiographer tells how PRHC’s Dr. Kebby King put a metal probe through a small cut in his skin and, using a CT to guide her, found the tumour and dissolved it with radio waves.

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Interventional radiologist Dr. Kebby King (right) and registered technologist Saara King prepare for a minimally invasive interventional radiology procedure at Peterborough Regional Health Centre (PRHC). Often described as 'the future of medicine', it's used to diagnose and treat a wide range of emergency and chronic health conditions, such as cancer and other illnesses, without the use of conventional surgery.  (Photo courtesy of PRHC Foundation)
Interventional radiologist Dr. Kebby King (right) and registered technologist Saara King prepare for a minimally invasive interventional radiology procedure at Peterborough Regional Health Centre (PRHC). Often described as ‘the future of medicine’, it’s used to diagnose and treat a wide range of emergency and chronic health conditions, such as cancer and other illnesses, without the use of conventional surgery. (Photo courtesy of PRHC Foundation)

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“It was amazing,” Stuart recalls. “I felt no pain and I was able to go home later that afternoon. Now I’m back taking photos and looking forward to travelling the world again. I worked in diagnostic imaging for 12 years. But back in the ’60s, we could never have imagined the kinds of things doctors can do these days.”

Interventional radiology is often described as ‘the future of medicine’. It’s used to diagnose and treat a wide range of emergency and chronic health conditions such as cancer and other illnesses, without the use of conventional surgery and the associated pain, complications, and longer hospital stays.

For patients in the Peterborough region, this means they can go home sooner, with less pain and less risk, all without having to travel far away.

VIDEO: Interventional Radiology is helping to revolutionize cancer care at PRHC

Interventional radiologist Dr. King describes that difference as “night and day.”

It’s remarkable how many life-threatening health conditions can be diagnosed and treated with this innovative specialty. It can be used to biopsy or treat tumours like Stuart’s, put in ports for chemotherapy, or stop bleeding — in as little as an hour.

Dr. King and her colleagues already perform 6,000 interventional radiology procedures each year at PRHC, and the need for this kind of care is only growing in our region. PRHC’s interventional radiology suites are 14 years old, however, and are too small to fit new advanced technology and the staff required to use it.

Interventional radiologist Dr. Kebby King (right) and registered technologist Saara King at Peterborough Regional Health Centre (PRHC). Dr. King and her colleagues perform 6,000 interventional radiology procedures a year for patients like Stuart Morley from across the region. To meet the growing need for this service, PRHC's facilities must be upgraded with a $6 million investment. (Photo courtesy of PRHC Foundation)
Interventional radiologist Dr. Kebby King (right) and registered technologist Saara King at Peterborough Regional Health Centre (PRHC). Dr. King and her colleagues perform 6,000 interventional radiology procedures a year for patients like Stuart Morley from across the region. To meet the growing need for this service, PRHC’s facilities must be upgraded with a $6 million investment. (Photo courtesy of PRHC Foundation)

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A $6 million investment in state-of-the-art equipment, upgraded suites, and an expanded recovery room is essential to meeting the need — so more patients with more complex conditions can be diagnosed and treated close to home.

Grateful for the great care he received and determined to help pave the way for new ground-breaking therapies to be offered at PRHC in the near future, Stuart donated to the PRHC Foundation for the first time. He wants to support the interventional radiology renovation and upgrade, and he knows that the government doesn’t fund hospital equipment.

“Our regional hospital needs our help,” Stuart says. “I’m asking everyone to join me in donating to support the interventional radiology facilities. Pictures can save lives. I know this because medical imaging saved mine. Now, our donations will help others. Thank you for helping to give people like me a brighter future.”

Grateful for the great care he received at Peterborough Regional Health Centre (PRHC) two years ago and determined to help pave the way for new ground-breaking therapies to be offered at PRHC in the near future, Cobourg resident Stuart Morley donated to the PRHC Foundation and is encouraging others to do the same. (Photo courtesy of PRHC Foundation)
Grateful for the great care he received at Peterborough Regional Health Centre (PRHC) two years ago and determined to help pave the way for new ground-breaking therapies to be offered at PRHC in the near future, Cobourg resident Stuart Morley donated to the PRHC Foundation and is encouraging others to do the same. (Photo courtesy of PRHC Foundation)

Not only do donations fund state-of-the-art technology not funded by the government, fuel innovation, and bring new services to our region, they also help PRHC attract and retain the best and brightest healthcare professionals. Doctors, nurses and staff want to do their jobs to the best of their abilities, and advanced equipment and innovative treatments support them in doing that.

This holiday season, donors and grateful patients like Stuart can help ensure PRHC’s frontline workers have the tools they need to provide expert, compassionate care, and receive some good cheer. Tribute donations can include a message of thanks or best wishes to a hospital department or individual physician, nurse or staff member when made online at prhcfoundation.ca or by phone at 705-876-5000.

To donate, find out more about interventional radiology, or share your own PRHC grateful patient story, please visit prhcfoundation.ca or call 705-876-5000.

 

This branded editorial was published in partnership with the PRHC Foundation. If your organization or business is interested in a branded editorial, contact us.

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Canadians should ensure kids get routine vaccines following COVID disruptions: doctors – National | Globalnews.ca – Global News

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Preventable diseases like measles could follow trends seen elsewhere in the world and spread quickly in Canada due to a drop in routine vaccinations during the COVID-19 pandemic, say pediatricians who are urging parents to ensure their kids are fully immunized.

Provinces and territories log data on vaccinations provided in the community against infectious diseases like measles, diphtheria, polio and whooping cough, as well as vaccines against other illnesses administered in school immunization clinics.

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Although much current data doesn’t cover years beyond 2019, provinces with more recent figures are already seeing a dramatic decline in routine vaccinations.

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Pediatricians are concerned about possible outbreaks of preventable diseases if too many children were underimmunized or not vaccinated at all while public health clinics focused on COVID-19 vaccines. Widespread school closures and vaccine disinformation that swayed some parents against immunization efforts complicated matters still further.

Recent data from Public Health Ontarioshows that for 12-year-olds, vaccination against the liver infection hepatitis B plummeted to about 17 per cent in the 2020 to 2021 school year, compared with 67 per cent in the school year ending in 2019.

For human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can cause cancer, the vaccination numbers were even lower, plunging to 0.8 per cent last year, compared with 58 per cent in 2019. For the meningococcal vaccine, which helps protect against four types of the bacteria that cause a rare disease, vaccinations fell to about 17 per cent from 80 per cent over the same time. Risks of the potentially deadly illness include meningitis, an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord.


Click to play video: 'Flu cases on the rise in Alberta'

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Flu cases on the rise in Alberta


“The large decline in coverage in 2019-20 and 2020-21 illustrates the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, as there was limited capacity to deliver school-based immunization programs,” Public Health Ontario said in a statement.

It said data for uptake of vaccines aimed at protecting younger kids against measles, for example, is not available beyond 2019, and a report on later numbers is expected to be released next spring.

Dr. Monika Naus,medical director of Immunization Programs and Vaccine Preventable Diseases Service at the BC Centre for Disease Control, said in-school vaccines, starting in Grade 6, were delayed, but work is underway to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Younger children missed appointments at doctors’ offices while physicians were seeing patients virtually and public health clinics, which mostly administer routine vaccines for kids outside of the Lower Mainland region of the province, were busy with COVID-19 shots, Naus said.


Click to play video: 'Routine childhood vaccinations drop during pandemic'

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Routine childhood vaccinations drop during pandemic


Dr. Sam Wong, director of medical affairs for the Canadian Paediatric Society, said disinformation and vaccine hesitancy during the pandemic, “combined with the failure of the public health system” to provide routine vaccines, mean certain populations could be left vulnerable to highly contagious diseases like measles, which spreads through coughing and sneezing.

“You could walk into a room an hour after someone’s been in there and potentially get infected,” he said.

“We’re worried, as a group of health-care providers, that if you have lower rates of vaccinations that you’re more likely to have localized outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses such as measles or mumps and chickenpox,” Wong said.

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Some childhood routine vaccines declined in Alberta over last 2 years due to COVID delays

Wong said it’s important for doctors and parents to discuss the importance of routine vaccinations that have been proven effective for decades, adding some people believe young kids’ immune systems are not ready so they’d rather wait until they’re older.

“But that’s why you want to give the vaccine, because their immune system is not able to fight off infections,” he said.

“Some parents don’t want to even have discussions with me about it. But if there is an opening, I’m happy to talk about it,” said Wong, who works in Yellowknife, Edmonton and Victoria.

The Public Health Agency of Canada said Canadian studies have found immunization coverage declined during the pandemic for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.


Click to play video: 'Toronto Public Health to resume in-school vaccination clinics in September'

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Toronto Public Health to resume in-school vaccination clinics in September


Quebec saw a 39 per cent drop in April 2020 compared with 2019, the agency said, with the greatest impact seen in children aged 18 months.

In Alberta, the agency said vaccination for those diseases declined by 10 per cent in April 2020 compared with the same month a year earlier. Coverage for Ontario children under two decreased by 1.7 per cent, it added.

“The Public Health Agency of Canada continues to work with provinces and territories on an ongoing basis to understand the impact of the pandemic on routine immunization coverage across Canada, and to improve the availability of high-quality data to inform immunization programs,” it said in a statement.

It is currently in discussions with all jurisdictions on ways to monitor coverage of vaccines, similar to a surveillance system used for COVID-19 vaccines, the agency said.

Nova Scotia Health said its last report on childhood vaccines was completed three years ago, and numbers have fallen during the pandemic.

“Anecdotally, we know there was a drop in childhood vaccination, but we do not have the specific numbers available at this time,” it said in a statement.

However, the school immunization program is aiming to help students catch up on vaccines that were missed early in the pandemic, mostly through doctors’ offices, it said, adding that getting an appointment was a challenge for some families.

“We know that a substantial number of Nova Scotians do not have a family doctor. Public Health often works with local primary care clinics to provide vaccines to those who do not have a family doctor and some public health offices will offer clinics to this population.”

Last week, the World Health Organization and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a statement saying a record high of nearly 40 million children missed first and second doses of the measles vaccine in 2021 due to disruptions in immunization programs since the start of the pandemic.

The two groups said there were an estimated nine million measles cases and 128,000 related deaths worldwide in 2021, and 22 countries experienced large outbreaks.

Dr. Noni MacDonald, a professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said a national registry that could quickly tell doctors which children have not been vaccinated is essential in Canada.

“I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall,” she said of her efforts to call for that change.

“How can we do proper health-care planning when we don’t have the data?”

Canada is an “outlier” that lags behind most European countries on the measles vaccine, she said, adding a coverage rate of 95 per cent is needed to create so-called herd immunity against the highly infectious disease.

Canada recently had 84 per cent uptake of the second dose of the measles vaccine. MacDonald said Australia, in comparison, had 94 per cent based on the most recent data from the WHO. She used the two countries as an example because they had a similar number of births _ 368,000 in Canada, and 300,000 in Australia in 2021.

“We are just not in the same league, and we should be embarrassed.”

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Flu shots are now free for everyone in Quebec due to overwhelmed hospital ERs

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While the campaign for flu shots has already been underway in Quebec for several weeks, the provincial government announced on Friday that immunization will now be free of charge for any Quebecer over the age of six months.

Previously, only people who met certain criteria (babies, seniors, the chronically ill, etc) were able to get the influenza immunization free of charge, and the vaccination sites set up for COVID-19 were only handling free flu shots. Meanwhile, the general population in Quebec was previously only able to get vaccinated at pharmacies, for a fee.

The decision was made due to the critical state of hospital ERs in the province, particularly at children’s hospitals in Montreal, where kids are being brought in by parents in larger numbers than usual due to rising rates of flu, COVID-19 and RSV infections.

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“With the trio of viruses currently circulating, the influenza vaccine is now available free of charge to all Quebecers who wish to take advantage of it. It’s one more tool to limit the pressure on our network.”

—Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé

To schedule an appointment for a flu shot and/or a COVID-19 shot, please visit the Clic Santé website.

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