It may not be immediately apparent to the 40,000 Irish people identified as having one form or another of cancer each year that the disease has become, if not a good news story, then a situation where possibility is an ever-more dominant presence.
Science has turned what was not so very long ago a sentence into something far less bleak. Cancer is no longer an opening sentence in a concluding chapter. It is still a huge challenge but one more and more people overcome to live long, full, happy lives.
Just half a lifetime ago, barely three out of 10 Irish people survived a cancer diagnosis. Today advances in medicine and an evolving understanding of how our lifestyle defines our physical and mental health means six out of 10 people do. The survival rate has doubled in 40 years.
This spectacular achievement justifies the millions upon millions invested in research but more importantly, it tips the scales to the advantage of the most important person in this whole equation — the cancer patient.
This is Cancer Awareness Week and the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) has renewed its campaign to make us all more aware of how we can work to avoid being one of the 9,000 plus Irish people who die of cancer each year. In 1980 that figure would have been, proportionately, closer to 20,000.
This disease is responsible for 30% of deaths in Ireland every year and cancer kills one Irish person every hour. Something around four-in-10 cancers is a consequence of one of five lifestyle choices. Smoking is still by far the greatest — and needless — health risk we run. Three in every 10 cancers is caused by smoking.
Our diet, being overweight or obese, or high alcohol use matched with low physical activity and smoking share responsibility for around 40% of preventable cancers. The ICS advises, once again, that a person who smokes can, by joining the 150,000 people who quit smoking in the last year, give themselves the very best chance of avoiding cancer.
The ICCS also encourages people to be alert to changes in their body, energy levels, unexplained weight loss or unusual bleeding. There are other signs but the core message is that these changes may be alarm bells and should be investigated.
They also advocate at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day as well as screening programmes — BreastCheck, BowelScreen or CervicalCheck — as is relevant as well as HPV vaccination programmes.
These are all positive steps and have contributed to improving cancer survival rates but just days after the Hospital Consultants’ Association pointed out that there are around 1m people languishing on a waiting list for one service or another it is obvious we must do much more to prevent cancer deaths and deaths from other common illnesses.
It is also important to recognise there are huge challenges in other health areas too — mental health, strokes, heart diseases, and, increasingly, illnesses associated with old age. However, the take-home message is that we can do far more than earlier generations ever imagined to try to deflect cancer. We should grab those opportunities with both hands.