The B.C. government is refusing to reimburse a cancer patient for two years of ferry rides because of a technicality in a health care program that compensates some patients for their travel costs.

Cowichan Bay resident Carmelle Demers underwent emergency surgery two days after doctors at Lions Gate Hospital discovered a cancerous tumour on her colon in 2009. It was then that she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in her liver as well.

Despite the fact she had recently moved to Vancouver Island, Demers said her treatment was handled by her family doctors and oncologists in North Vancouver because she was never given the option to be treated closer to home and she never questioned their decisions.

The distance meant she took approximately 25 round-trip ferry journeys with her car for her "never-ending" medical and surgical appointments, as well as rounds of chemotherapy every two weeks.

"And you're just wondering -- how are you going to pay for all that? You just keep paying and paying, and you have no choice. You have to do it," she told CTV News at her home near Duncan.

Demers said her family was forced to rely on employment insurance throughout her illness and she even cancelled her Blue Cross coverage because she couldn't afford the payments.

But in June -- a year-and-a-half into her cancer treatment at Lions Gate Hospital -- Demers was stunned to learn she was eligible for free ferry trips under the province's Travel Assistance Plan, which provides travel funding for medical patients.

The TAP program, which is coordinated jointly by the Ministry of Health and transportation partners who agree to waive their fee, provides partial discounts and special medical fares for land and air travel. This includes a full discount for patients travelling with their vehicles on BC Ferries, like Demers.

"I was kind of panicking," she said. "What's this? How come I never knew about that? We're here, we're struggling."

Demers estimates her ferry travel costs have exceeded $3,000 during her two-year cancer battle, excluding the added fares when her husband accompanied her to appointments because she was too sick to go by herself.

Under the TAP program patients must have a physician's referral for medical services which are not available in their own community. Technically Demers would have been able to receive her treatments on Vancouver Island but she said that no one ever suggested to her that she should be treated closer to where she lives.

Related: The B.C. TAP program

The B.C. Ministry of Health said Demers didn't qualify for TAP because she didn't get treatment on Vancouver Island but admitted if she got a referral from her doctor for treatment in the Lower Mainland that would have been okay.

Additionally, the health ministry refuses to reimburse her costs because medical patients are required to get the TAP forms filled out by their doctors before they travel for medical reasons. As a policy, they do not do retroactive payments.

But Demers says it's unfair she won't be compensated because her family doctor and oncologist claim they didn't know about the TAP program.

"If it's a right I should know about it. It's crazy," she said. "So who's going to pay for what I went through here?"

The BC Cancer Agency said Demers was treated by one of only a handful of oncologists in the province who is not affiliated with the agency.

Officials said agency patients would normally hear about TAP through staff when a patient learns they have cancer. Information about the program is also available on the BCCA website in the ‘Coping with Cancer' section.

But Gina MacKenzie said the agency never treated Demers so it's possible she fell through the cracks of the health care system.

"It could happen. It may be that their physician is unaware or sometimes people are feeling overwhelmed with the amount of information that you're given when you first come or you're concentrating on the information about their treatment," she said.

Demers wants other medical patients to know about the TAP program so they don't have to pay out of pocket for necessary travel expenses.

"I do hope that there is a way for me to get reimbursed somehow, and if there is no way, I do wish for this not to happen to anybody else," she said, adding that she wishes the TAP program was more widely advertised through television and radio.

A spokesperson for the health ministry called Demers' case "an unfortunate situation overall," but said that there are multiple ways that the department makes the information available.

The ministry said TAP, which they call a "very well used and well known" program, was used 102,026 times in 2010/2011 alone. Program expenditures are expected to reach $9.8 million in 2011/2012.

The TAP website logged more than 116,000 hits between July 2010 and August 2011.

Demers has accessed the TAP program three times since finding out about it this summer.

With a report from CTV British Columbia's Lynda Steele...