Irish Examiner journalist Karen Funnell was diagnosed with cancer five years ago. She is adamant that every cancer sufferer and survivor — regardless of age, location, or economic or social divide — deserves the same tools to fight the disease.
You can’t buy a clean bill of health but if you are lucky enough to live in the right part of town, you have a lower risk of getting cancer and, even if you are diagnosed, a better shot at surviving to tell the tale.
According to a major report released last week by the National Cancer Registry Ireland (NCRI), deprivation, age and where you live — urban or rural — influence the incidence, treatment, and survival rates of one of Ireland’s greatest killers.
Not to suggest for a moment that age and location are of lesser importance, but the deprivation figures are both stark and disturbing. Women living in less affluent areas in the country have a 120% increased risk of developing cervical cancer, while both sexes have a 60% increased risk of being diagnosed with lung cancer and a 40% higher risk of stomach cancer.
According to the NCRI, the patterns indicate ‘striking inequalities’ in society but it admits that to say it’s purely because poorer people don’t have access to the same services that their better-off peers enjoy is oversimplifying it.
It’s also disingenuous to dismiss people in deprived areas as smokers and poor eaters who don’t bother having regular smear tests or check-ups. Nothing is ever that black and white, especially not with cancer.
Information is key — from preventing a diagnosis in the first place, dealing with having the disease, getting through months of torturous treatment, and coping with the aftermath of treatment and the risk of recurrence.
When I was diagnosed five years ago, I was bombarded with information — most of it from scrambling desperately around the internet. Googling became a daily chore — alternative therapies, side-effects, outcomes, mortality rates. Knowledge aids empowerment — without it, how can you fight and survive?
Some of the information was misleading, incorrect, and downright frightening but it became important to separate the good from the bad; to be informed and to have all the options.
Yes, put trust and faith in the doctors and nurses but maintain the right to ask questions and make sure your voice is heard. It’s your treatment, your life, your cancer. The medics are managing a mountain of cases, you’re just dealing with your own diagnosis.
Being informed can’t prevent cancer — sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw — but everyone should be educated about lifestyle factors, regardless of where they live. The risks of smoking are well flagged but what about the role that nutrition plays?
There’s something disturbing about a developed world in which it’s often cheaper to buy a processed ready meal than a bag of fruit — sometimes people make the wrong choices because they don’t have the means to make the right ones.
The fight against obesity is gathering pace in schools but there is still a lack of awareness about the links between cancer and being overweight. Key steps need to be taken while a child is still young to curb unhealthy eating habits or the vicious cycle will only continue to spiral.
The report reveals that poorer patients are up to 19% less likely to use surgery to treat their cancer. Every operation carries a risk but this needs to be weighed up against the benefits. What makes a patient choose not to have surgery — if this choice is solely driven by fear or a lack of knowledge, then surely something is missing from their treatment plan?
Another stark fact is that in spite of rising cancer survival rates in general, people from deprived backgrounds have poorer outcomes, being 40% more likely to die within five years of a diagnosis than those in the least deprived areas.
The medical profession’s workloads in fighting cancer are not diminishing. Doctors and nurses may tell you not to smoke as they discharge you from hospital but they rarely have the time or resources to adequately educate or advise on nutrition, diet, alcohol and exercise.
They probably won’t have time to suggest you go to a support group to talk to other survivors, or take up yoga to help ease the effects of your medication because they will have already moved on to the next patient — that is the firefighting nature of the disease.
There’s more at stake here than physical recovery. Not every survivor has the means or knowledge to know what comes next. Yoga and support groups won’t stop the cancer coming back but a positive attitude is a really important part of recovery. You won’t get far without it.
The aftermath of cancer can be as difficult as the disease itself. There’s a sort of cocoon during treatment that is swiftly pulled away once you get the all-clear and it’s a steep learning curve.
It’s imperative to get into the right “head space” post-treatment and not spend your time stressing that every ache is another tumour — having said that, you must be vigilant in getting anything suspicious checked out quickly. It can be a tough balance to strike but every cancer survivor — regardless of age, location, or economic or social divide — deserves the same tools to fight this disease.
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