Renewing Our Efforts to Tackle Cancer
Despite all the medical advances and the information out there, more people in Ireland are getting cancer than ever before according to the Irish Cancer Society. One in three people in this country will be diagnosed with cancer at some stage in their lives. Within nine years it is projected that 43,000 people annually in Ireland will be diagnosed with a form of cancer.
These facts are stark and indeed worrying. But there is also encouraging news and in my view two particularly positive points worth highlighting; 1) Up to 50% of all cancers are preventable and 2) Cancer is increasingly being viewed as a condition from which people will survive, with approximately 280,000 people diagnosed between the years 1995 and 2009 having survived cancer.
So if we know that half of cancers are preventable and that chances of surviving cancer are ever increasing, what do we need to do as a society and what do those of us in political life need to do to renew and redouble our efforts to tackle cancer?
Well, there are three specific areas that need to be addressed and that were outlined to me by the Irish Cancer Society at one of the first policy briefings I attended after my election to the Dáil:
Put simply we need to cut smoking levels in Ireland, extend the ages for those eligible for various cancer screenings and control the use of sunbeds.
Ireland showed international leadership when it introduced the smoking ban in workplaces in 2004. However, when it comes to measures to curb smoking levels, you need to constantly pursue the issue. To stand still when it comes to tackling smoking is to go backwards. We now need a new National Tobacco Strategy. The last such strategy is about ten years old. A new strategy needs to address a range of areas including tough penalties for tobacco smuggling, training for health professionals who come into contact with people who want to quit and, of course, work needs to be ongoing and intensified in terms of highlighting the dangers of smoking and constantly reminding people of these dangers. We know that 70% of smokers want to quit, but the supports are not currently in place to help them do so.
We made some progress in the Dáil very recently with the introduction of a Bill which will allow the Minister for Health instruct that cigarette packets contain graphic photo images of the dangers of smoking alongside the text warnings. Such graphic images have been used to great effect in a number of countries including Australia and Canada.
29% of our population smoke according to a recent survey by the organisation SLÁN. We need to reduce this figure and we need to use all tools possible to achieve this.
Huge improvements have been made in recent years in terms of various cancer screening programmes. We all know that early detection is vital when it comes to surviving cancer. Both BreastCheck and CervicalCheck have played an important role in this process of increasing early detection rates. However, as always, I guess, there is much more to do.
European Council Guidelines indicate that breast screening should be extended to include women above 64. Firstly it needs to be extended to the age group 65-69 and then up to 74 years of age. There is welcome news in relation to plans for a bowel cancer screening programme to commence in 2012. This screening programme will be aimed at people aged 60 to 69 years of age. Again though, whilst this welcome, there is a need to extend this demographic to include those from the age of 50 to the age of 74. The on-going waiting times for colonoscopies need to be addressed and these waiting times reduced as quickly as possible.
In the area of sunbeds, this needs regulation in Ireland. I am delighted that the Minister for Health has indicated his intention to publish legislation to regulate sunbed use at the end of this year. This is an issue which there is cross-party political support on and it needs to be enacted as quickly as possible. It is completely unacceptable that currently young children can avail of sunbed use. The new legislation must ban the use of sunbeds by anyone under 18 years of age and require that sunbeds can only be used in supervised places. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in this country and it measures to regulate the use of sunbeds is long overdue.
We need to renew and intensify our national efforts to reduce cancer rates in this country and to increase survival rates. The Government has a major role to play in this but so does broader society. There is brilliant working being done across the length and breadth of this country by Cancer Support Groups – I see it in my own constituency; volunteers providing advice, support, therapies and counselling. These groups have become an absolutely indispensable part of community health system. At a national level, the Irish Cancer Society is doing Trojan work to ensure the issue of cancer is kept high on the political agenda and high in the public mind-set.
If you want more information on cancer contact the National Cancer Helpline on 1 800 200 700. This phone line is open from 9am-7pm Monday to Thursday and 9am-5pm on a Friday.
Or are you ready to quit smoking? You don’t have to do it on your own. There are supports out there. For help, advice and support call the National Smokers’ Quitline on 1850 201 203.