A new 10-year National Cancer Strategy has been launched by the Government.
The strategy, which will run from 2017 to 2026, will focus on the prevention of cancer, early diagnosis of the disease, the provision of optimal care to patients and maximising their quality of life.
According to the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, ‘great strides' have been made under the current strategy in relation to areas such as cancer screening, rapid access clinics and surgical services.
"This progress has resulted in improved outcomes for patients and better survival rates. Now we must take the next step," he commented.
He emphasised that the number of cases of cancer is expected to almost double in Ireland by 2040, due largely to an increasing and ageing population. As a result, prevention, early diagnosis and treatment are all key.
"Cancer prevention offers the most cost-effective, long-term approach for cancer control. In fact, 30-40% of cancers are avoidable through improved diet, more exercise, reduced alcohol intake, limited exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation and of course not smoking," he noted.
He also described the early diagnosis of cancer as ‘vital' and highlighted the ‘crucial' role of screening.
"The new strategy recommends the continued expansion of cancer screening. BreastCheck, which currently covers women aged 50-64 years of age, is being expanded to women of 65 to 69 inclusive, and the expansion of BowelScreen over time to all aged 55-74 is also recommended.
"The new strategy also aims to ensure that patients receive the required care in a timely fashion, from an expert clinical team in the optimal location. It recommends the expansion of radiation and medical oncology, as well as the concentration of surgical services in the designated centres," Minister Harris explained.
The new strategy was broadly welcomed by a number of patient support groups and organisations. The Irish Cancer Society said that it will ‘support the Department of Health to achieve its vision for cancer care in Ireland and will be a strong voice for patients throughout the term of the strategy, ensuring its ambition is met'.
It said it was happy to see a more person-centred approach, including a recognition of the psychological effects of cancer.
"The Irish Cancer Society has heard over and over again from cancer patients and their families that as the word cancer is spoken, the person vanishes and a patient and tumour are left behind. All focus turns to treatment while the emotional needs of the person with cancer are often overlooked. Having the right support, at the right time and from the right people is vital to how people experience and deal with their cancer and life afterwards," commented the society's chairperson, Dermot Breen.
This was echoed by the ARC Cancer Support Centres, which operates two drop-in centres in Dublin, providing psychological support, complementary therapy and counselling services to people with cancer and their loved ones free of charge.
Over 15,500 visits to ARC were recorded in 2016, an increase of 13% on 2015's figure.
"We know that when people receive psychosocial support in the right place at the right time, their quality of life is improved, they are less likely to be re-admitted to acute hospitals for care, more likely to participate in full and active lives and in many cases, to return to work," explained ARC chief executive, Deirdre Grant.
Meanwhile, the new strategy was also described as a ‘potential game changer' by Cancer Trials Ireland, which is responsible for coordinating cancer trials in this country. Since its establishment in 1996, over 15,000 people have participated in more than 350 cancer trials.
"Implementation of the strategy could take us significantly closer to finding successful treatments for all types of cancer. It acknowledges that cancer trials should be a core activity of cancer centres and recommends that they should be fully integrated into cancer care delivery.
"These actions will take cancer research to a new level. Cancer trials will not be outliers on the periphery, but central to the treatment options available to people with cancer," commented consultant oncologist and clinical lead at Cancer Trials Ireland, Prof Bryan Hennessy.