Public urged to have cancer signs checked out

Concern that pandemic may lead to later diagnoses
  • Deborah Condon

Members of the public are being urged to contact their doctor if they are worried about symptoms that may indicate cancer.

The Irish Cancer Society has launched a new campaign, Your Health Matters, to highlight the importance of early detection of cancer and encourage people who may be concerned about symptoms, to contact their doctor.

"We are worried that people are delaying contacting their doctor if they have symptoms which could be cancer. We certainly don't want this to happen. If a loved one told you about a suspicious looking change to their skin, a lump or abnormal bleeding, would you tell them to delay contacting their GP? We want to hear from you," commented GP advisor with the National Cancer Control Programme, Dr Una Kennedy.

She emphasised that doctors are working hard to make sure that anyone who has any symptoms of cancer is seen despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

"There are many challenges but detecting cancer early is a priority. Please do not hesitate in contacting your doctor's surgery if you have any questions. Maybe something doesn't feel quite right or you have concerns about attending a clinic or a hospital appointment.

"Even though there is increased pressure on our health services, ensuring potential cancers are detected as early as possible is as much of a priority now as it has ever been," Dr Kennedy insisted.

Data from the HSE shows that the number of suspected cancer cases referred through its Healthlink e-referral system dropped by over 50% after the first wave of the pandemic.

Jane Jackson (49) underwent treatment for skin cancer during the pandemic. Her dental hygienist spotted a mole on the back of her neck that she suggested should be looked at. However, after speaking with her husband Roy, Jane instead decided to keep an eye on the mole, as they thought it looked "fine".

"However, some months later, Roy noticed it had started to change so I made an appointment to see my GP. Despite the pandemic, I was seen the same day I made the call. The GP immediately made an appointment for me days later at the dermatology department of the local hospital. I was anxious about how seriously the GP was taking this, and I was also very worried about going to the hospital in the middle of the health crisis," she explained.

At the appointment, it was decided that the mole should be removed immediately and sent for testing. Just days later, she was called back to the hospital and was told that the mole was a cancerous melanoma and that she had stage 1b skin cancer.

"I cried when I was told. My doctor was so kind and apologised for her mask and that social distancing meant she couldn't comfort me and that I couldn't have someone with me. Since then I've undergone further testing and had more skin and lymph nodes removed. I now have to have full skin checks every 12 weeks as there is a 70% chance of recurrence.

"My advice to others who are concerned about symptoms at this time is to just get them checked out with their doctor. Melanoma can spread quickly, so I'm glad it was caught when it was, but if I had acted when the mole was first noticed I could have saved myself a lot of pain and anxiety," Ms Jackson said.

The Irish Cancer Society said that it is concerned that due to the many challenges presented by the pandemic, "we may see more people diagnosed with cancer at a much later stage".

"Feeling stressed, isolated, anxious or busy home schooling, may prevent people from contacting their doctor, but it's important to put your health first. If you have any niggling worries about changes to your body, contact a doctor. Pick up the phone today.

"If you are unsure about what you should do in these challenging times, call the Irish Cancer Society. We are here for you and on standby whenever you need help, support or guidance," explained the society's cancer prevention manager, Kevin O'Hagan.

Research commissioned by the Irish Cancer Society found that one in four people did not attend a GP or hospital appointment when they needed to during the first COVID lockdown.

Reasons for this included thinking that their condition was not serious enough and fear of contracting COVID-19.

Three in five people said they were not confident that they would be able to access healthcare if needed as they believed the healthcare system was under too much pressure.

Furthermore, among people affected by cancer, two in five said that their treatment had been negatively affected by COVID-19.

However, the research also found that seven in 10 people still feel safe attending GP and hospital appointments in person, and half of people had attended their GP clinic in person during the previous eight months.

This research involved 1,000 adults and was carried out in October and November 2020.

The Irish Cancer Society acknowledged that it can be difficult to spot the early stages of cancer, as there may be very few signs. However, it urged people to be vigilant because the earlier cancer is detected, the more treatment options are available and the better the chance of long-term survival.

Signs and symptoms to look out for include:
-A lump or swelling - check your whole body, not just your breasts or testicles
-Abnormal bleeding, such as coughing up blood, blood in your urine, bleeding from the vagina between periods, bleeding after sex
-Unexplained weight loss
-Pain that you cannot explain and that does not go away. If it lasts more than four weeks, talk to your doctor
-A cough, changes in your voice or feeling short of breath. Speak to your doctor if you have any of these problems for more than three weeks, especially if you are a smoker or ex-smoker
-A sore that does not heal. If a spot, wart or sore does not heal in a few weeks, get it checked by your doctor, even if it is painless
-Difficulty swallowing, indigestion or heartburn. It is not normal to have indigestion or heartburn that happens a lot or is very painful. Difficulty swallowing is not normal either. Get these checked by your doctor
-Bloating that does not go away within a few weeks
-Mouth or tongue ulcer. Having a mouth or tongue ulcer for three weeks or more is not normal and needs to be checked by your doctor or dentist
-A change in your bowel or bladder habits. If you have constipation, diarrhoea or problems passing urine for more than a few weeks, talk to your doctor.
-A new mole or changes to an existing mole. Get into the habit of checking your skin every month for new moles. Also, watch for changes in colour, shape and size of existing moles.
-Any change in your breasts. Get into the habit of looking at and feeling your breasts for changes in the shape, size, nipples and skin.

The Irish Cancer Society has launched its Your Health Matters campaign to coincide with World Cancer Day (February 4).

To speak to a cancer nurse about any aspect of the disease, contact the Cancer Support Line on 1800 200 700, email or drop into one of 13 Daffodil Centres in hospitals nationwide. For information on Daffodil Centre locations and opening times, email

*Pictured at the launch of the Your Health Matters campaign is RTE sports broadcaster, Marty Morrissey.


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