26 January 2010
As more people in Northern Ireland survive cancer, it is vital they can access the support they need, argues Heather Monteverde in the Belfast Telegraph.
When someone is diagnosed with cancer, it is a confusing and stressful time and is of course something that can be difficult to come to terms with. As well as the immediate consequences of the disease, there are also much longer term problems, not just physical but also emotional and financial.
This week Irish Finance Minister Brian Lenihan announced he would remain in work during his cancer treatment. While this decision is a very personal one, it is positive to see that he has the support of his employers at what is such a difficult time.
His decision also means that, unlike so many cancer patients who are unable to stay in work because they are too unwell or because they do not have an understanding employer, he will not suffer financially.
We now know that a cancer diagnosis is not just a matter of life and death. Advances in medical science mean people are more likely than ever to survive cancer.
Indeed, new figures released by Macmillan just this week show that that 1.2million people across the UK - approximately 31,000 people in Northern Ireland - were diagnosed with cancer five or more years ago. This number includes people who are in remission, who may be suffering the late effects of treatment or who are receiving palliative care. While some of these people will also be ready to return to work, for others, the long term consequences of the disease will mean they are unable to.
This means people affected by cancer often fall into poverty. Unable to work, they struggle to pay their daily living costs. During the coldest winter in 30 years, when heating bills have risen massively, life will currently be incredibly uncomfortable for many people with cancer in Northern Ireland.
As well as medical help being readily available, Macmillan believes the emotional and financial needs of people affected by cancer need to be met. A new Cancer Services Framework for Northern Ireland is currently out for consultation. This consultation by the Department of Health & Social Services comes at a time when new Macmillan research, also released just this week, shows that patients’ expectations of our health services are understandably high. Our survey of 1000 people across the UK shows that the vast majority would expect a full assessment of their ongoing medical, emotional and financial needs.
However, these things are not currently standard for patients finishing treatment so there are certainly discrepancies between what is expected of our health services and what is indeed available.
Our findings also show that two-fifths of patients questioned said they were unaware they would suffer any long term side effects. This highlights the need for people living with cancer to be given better information about the long term effects of cancer - the physical and emotional impact it may have in the years to come.
We also believe there should be clear and swift access back into the specialist system if people’s health needs change. They should also know where to go if they need access to information, emotional help or financial support.
Macmillan estimates that the number of those living with or beyond a cancer diagnosis currently stands at two million in the UK - 55,000 in Northern Ireland - and is increasing by more than 3% a year.
Given the growing number of people who are now surviving cancer, there is more need than ever for people to know where to turn if they need help and information at a time perhaps many years after they have been diagnosed.
Macmillan has already gone some way to addressing this need. In partnership with the Belfast Trust we have established a Macmillan Support and Information Centre at Belfast City Hospital. Other similar services will be available later this year in the Royal Victoria and Ulster Hospitals.
Macmillan financial advice services are available at Altnagelvin Hospital and at Belfast City, Royal Group of Hospitals and the Mater Hospital which help people access the welfare benefits they are entitled to and also advise on employment rights and returning to work.
Like Mr Lenihan, the Irish Finance Minister, people should be able to remain in their jobs and indeed return to work if they so wish to. They should also be able to access the help and support they need - whether it be medical, emotional or financial - at a time that's right for them, no matter long it has been since their cancer diagnosis.
To find out more about services available from Macmillan Cancer Support, call us on 0808 808 00 00 or visit www.macmillan.org.uk .
Heather Monteverde is Macmillan Cancer Support’s general manager for Northern Ireland. For more information about Macmillan visit www.macmillan.org.uk. .
Read more on the Belfast Telegraph website.