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 personal one, it is positive to see that he has the support of his employers.
His decision also means that, unlike 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.
New figures from Macmillan show that 1.2m people across the UK — approximately 31,000 in Northern Ireland — were diagnosed with cancer five or more years ago.This includes those 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 will mean they are unable to.
This means people affected by cancer often fall into poverty. Unable to work, they struggle to pay daily living costs. During the coldest winter in 30 years, when heating bills have risen massively, life will be incredibly uncomfortable for many.
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 by the Department of Health and Social Services. It comes at a time when new Macmillan research shows that patients’ expectations of our health services are understandably high. Our survey of 1,000 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 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 them 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 stands at 55,000 here and is increasing by more than 3% per year.
Given the growing number of survivors, there is more need than ever for people to know where to turn for help and information at a time, perhaps many years after they have been diagnosed.
In partnership with the Belfast Trust, Macmillan has established a Support and Information Centre at Belfast City Hospital. Similar services will be available later this year at the Royal Victoria and Ulster hospitals. Macmillan financial advice services are also available at Altnagelvin Hospital, Belfast City, Royal Group of Hospitals and the Mater Hospital. These help people access welfare benefits and advise on employment rights and returning to work.
Like Mr Lenihan, people should be able to remain in their jobs, and return to work if they so wish.
Heather Monteverde is Macmillan Cancer Support’s general manager for Northern Ireland. For more information on the charity visit w.macmillan.org.uk.