Last week’s column was very personal. I have had many kind and supportive comments over the week since it’s publication – all of which I am very grateful for.
This week my father will be ten years dead. He died of bowel cancer at the age of 53. My mother had died ten months earlier of breast cancer, two weeks after her 50th birthday.
While they had been separated for many years their final years were lived in the parallel universe that cancer patients and their families know.
My father’s cancer was not found early. He had neglected his health and went to the doctor only after the cancer symptoms were very advanced. He also neglected the post-operative treatments of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. My flawed but much loved father succumbed to his illness three years after diagnosis.
My mother was different. Her only sister and her aunts had had breast cancer. She was very aware and attending the hospital in Cavan, where she lived the last ten years of her life, for breast screening. She was incredibly health conscious, eating only the organically grown chickens and vegetables she reared and grew herself. She had a mammogram nine months before the cancer emerged. When the cancer inevitably came her symptoms were not typical of breast cancer. Her breast became inflamed and sore and the skin changed texture. She was treated for mastitis for two very critical months. Instead of receiving an ultrasound she received antibiotics. By the time inflammatory breast cancer was diagnosed she was on the wrong side of the fence for hope. She lived less than two more years. And those years were filled with horrific operations, debilitating treatments and crushing conversations with nurses, doctors and consultants.
This week also marks one of my best friend’s end of treatment for early onset breast cancer. Thanks to early detection her cancer was operable and treatable. She is very brave and very wonderful. I am so grateful that medicine and the health service have ensured that she will remain with her beautiful family, and us her friends, for many more fun and generosity filled years. Critical to this was a routine breast screening mammogram. The safety net caught her.
In the ten years since my parents’ deaths medicine has developed remarkably and the mortality statistics on cancer continue to decline. However less so in Ireland, both north and south. A good outcome is entirely dependent on early detection, ready and easy access to testing and treatment – and the essential factor for all of that is an accessible health service.
As the cuts continue to run deep what are the fundamental risks? Many men, and plenty of women, are often reluctant to look after their health. If an appointment with a GP cannot be secured for weeks after symptoms emerge, many will wait and see if the symptoms just go away. Overstretched GPs may well give out antibiotics instead of referring for ultrasounds. If there are fewer resources for community health services then accessible, regular testing simply will not happen. When that happens the safety nets are removed and by the time diagnoses are made, which side of the fence of hope many citizens sit on, may well be the wrong one.