More research funding for cancer urgently needed

Fears of a "ticking time bomb" due to COVID
  • Deborah Condon

There needs to be an urgent approach to finding new treatments for cancer, similar to the rapid response seen with COVID-19, Breakthrough Cancer Research has said.

The Irish medical research charity has warned that the pandemic has effectively caused a "ticking time bomb" when it comes to cancer. Currently, one person dies every hour of every day in Ireland from cancer, however this figure is expected to increase as recurring lockdowns lead to delays in cancer screenings, referrals and some treatments.

Cancer research has also been badly hit as a result of lab closures, disruptions to clinical trials and difficulties accessing patient samples to test.

"We all now know what it's like to anxiously wait for a life-saving research breakthrough, to have hope for a future free from illness. However, while research is beginning to deliver for COVID, patients with cancer continue in a state of anxiety as they wait for a new treatment.

"Not only that, but their risks have increased and their only hope - cancer research - risks falling behind. Cancer won't wait and COVID is like a ticking time bomb for the disease," commented the charity's CEO, Orla Dolan.
According to Sandie O'Neill from Kildare, the pandemic has had a major impact on her treatment for breast cancer.

"Check-ups for people living with long-term cancer are so important. Over the past year, I have had no blood tests, whereas pre-COVID, I used to have them every three months. My doctors were very nice during my phone consultations, but they could not examine me, and they had no blood results.

"If I had seen them in person at my regular check-ups, I think that they would have found the new tumour faster. I had to keep asking until I eventually got a bone scan done. Everyone needs to be aware of their own body and fight for treatments. Thankfully, I am on new treatment now, which I started last week," Ms O'Neill explained.

Lucy Fahy from west Cork, who has ovarian cancer, said that living with COVID has allowed many people a glimpse into what it is like living with cancer.

"Living under threat, practicing hygiene, fearing infection, having all certainty of the future ripped away are all normal for anyone who has gone through something like cancer, so now everyone's getting a glimpse of how that is too.

"I suppose the main thing COVID has done for those in cancer treatment is to add extra layers of uncertainty and to make an already difficult thing that bit more difficult," she said.

She also described how COVID has made her world feel much smaller, which has "intensified" her cancer experience.

"It feels like all at once, every single coping mechanism carefully developed over time was suddenly removed and what was left was the illness, then this whole new threat on top. Now there is nowhere to run to, no normality to escape into," she noted.

Ms Fahy is currently working with Breakthrough Cancer Research on a new national campaign aimed at raising awareness of the urgent need for more research funding.

The charity is currently supporting the work of 67 researchers nationwide and has already brought eight cancer treatments successfully to clinical trial.

It also has what it describes as "groundbreaking new cancer treatments in the pipeline", and these treatments could be advanced further in clinical trials and made available to patients faster if more funding was available.

"Everyone now knows the power of research. It is the only thing that will create new and more effective treatments for diseases, and give back birthdays, weddings and futures. While the end is hopefully in sight for the coronavirus, there is still a long way to go for the original big C - cancer," Ms Dolan commented.

She pointed out that research "has already created so many survivors" and more lives can be saved now, "but we need the same sense of urgency to fund cancer research as there is with COVID".

According to Prof Roisin Connolly, of University College Cork and Cork University Hospital, the current COVID-19 surge is making cancer doctors throughout the country very anxious.

"Patients with cancer are living in very trying times. In addition to being particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and experiencing months of isolation, cancer treatments, including clinical trial options, may be disrupted in the current environment, screening programmes may be delayed, and many people are avoiding investigating new symptoms during lockdown phases.

"Unfortunately, this means that cancer may be discovered in patients much later, when they may be harder to treat," she commented.

Prof Breandán Kennedy of University College Dublin explained how the pandemic has impacted his research into novel treatments for uveal melanoma (a cancer of the eye).

"Thankfully, our research in 2020 continued during the pandemic, but it has been significantly hampered. For instance, access for the cancer researchers to the labs was severely reduced for several months.

"Undoubtedly, the most substantial impact has been on access to patient samples for research because due to COVID-19 restrictions, the scheduled surgeries were cancelled or the pathology lab was unable to provide tumour tissue for research. These are unique, precious samples that allow us to investigate the response of each patient's primary uveal melanoma to research drugs," he said.

Ms Dolan emphasised how far cancer research has come. She noted that 50 years ago, breast and prostate cancer survival rates were at less than 50%. However now, thanks to research, they are at over 85%.

"This is incredible and we want to celebrate the amazing researchers and patients giving time to research to save others. However, despite this progress, survival rates today for some cancers are still less than 10%. That's not a number we're prepared to accept. With better diagnostics and treatments for all, we won't have to," she insisted.

For more information on Breakthrough Cancer Research, or to make a donation, click here, call 1890 998 998 or email info@breakthroughcancerresearch.ie.

*Pictured is Lucy Fahy from west Cork who has ovarian cancer


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