Cancer treatment - Gaps in cancer care must be filled

IT is a harrowing but incontrovertible fact that the further a patient lives from a centre of treatment, the greater the chance of becoming another victim of cancer.

There has been a singular failure on the part of successive governments in improving cancer treatment on a national basis, despite the fact that thousands succumb to the disease every year, and 15,400 men and women this year alone will be diagnosed with it.

A report by the National Cancer Registry (NCR) two years ago confirmed that this geographical discrimination existed, and said it was “striking” that survival in the then Eastern Regional Health Authority — comprising Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow — tended to be better than in most other areas.

Significantly, another report by the NCR and the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry concluded that differences in cancer incidence and death rates between different regions probably reflected not just differences in lifestyle choices or public health initiatives but in healthcare systems.

This tragedy of birthplace, or potential tragedy, is recognised by the Health Service Executive (HSE) which has said it is acutely aware of the need for a “significant improvement” in the way cancer care is delivered nationally.

It is utterly absurd for Tánaiste and Health Minister Mary Harney to launch, as she did last month, the Strategy for Cancer Control in Ireland 2006, without particularising in detail how it will come about.

She failed to illustrate how the Government intended to support the scheme by way of funding, resources or facilities.

In the area of cancer care and treatment, the Government has been without a realistic cohesive plan to deliver on a national basis and has relied very heavily on the fact that there are many voluntary organisations which strive to fill the gaps in the service.

Despite the fact that BreastCheck has proven to be an effective screening facility, it is not available nationwide even though it was introduced seven years ago.

It has been estimated that 65 women a year are dying in Ireland for the simple reason that breast cancer screening is lacking in the west and south of the country.

The HSE has admitted that cancer patients in Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow have access to more than four times the number of cancer specialists that patients in the rest of the country have.

While it is good that cancer patients in certain parts of the country may be well looked after, it illustrates the gross imbalance that their counterparts in many other parts of the country have to endure.

Lack of access to centres of treatment and care, from Donegal to Waterford, imposes on patients a horrendous burden of travel which compounds the worry and discomfort which their condition inflicts on them.

There is a total distortion of dedicated cancer beds for in-patients throughout the hospital network of the eight HSE areas, without even one such bed existing in the North East hospital group.

The parlous state of cancer care and treatment, as provided by the Government, will be highlighted by this newspaper over the coming days and it will give rise to major concerns among those who may be not entirely familiar with the huge gaps there are in the service.

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