Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Nicola Russell's cancer drugs plight is a disgrace... but don't pass the buck

Nicola Russell

Few who read last week's story of internationally renowned Belfast artist Nicola Russell's fight for cancer drugs will have failed to be moved. Or angered. The very idea of a woman who is already living with an illness having to endure the trauma of upping sticks from her Belfast home to relocate in England to get proper treatment is outrageous.

Yet exactly when Nicola should be rallying her mental and physical resources to focus on her wellbeing, and drawing support from having family and friends close by, that is the cruel and costly reality she must face.

Because Northern Ireland patients are denied access to specialist treatment through the Cancer Drug Fund, which supplies 38 different types of cancer drugs not available in Northern Ireland.

And that is nothing short of a disgrace.

Nicola rang me when she first decided to go public with her story, so I know personally what a difficult decision it was for her to speak out. Who really wants to make headlines at a time like that?

There's a natural protectiveness towards the feelings of loved ones, too. And then there's just the simple fact that Nicola should be painting, sitting in a sunny garden, going on holiday, getting on with making the most of every day. Not this.

Yet Nicola felt – morally and pragmatically – that she had to join the other brave voices backing the Cancer Focus NI campaign to end the postcode lottery of innovative drugs here.

"I don't know how any political party who stands for social justice is not hanging their heads in shame at the situation. It is unspeakably wrong," she said.

You see, it's all very well to speak about demanding "equal rights" and/or "British values" when it comes to the colour of maps and flying flags, but when it comes to the very stuff of life and death, of pain and suffering, of helping our fellow citizens in their toughest hour, one is struck by the silence.

True, the politicians will all point to their manifestos, murmur pieties and wish that rain was liquid gold, but this issue demands more than that.

It demands action. And I'd like to think that we in Northern Ireland are mature enough to realise that it isn't enough to whine that it's all the fault of England, George Osborne, Westminster. If only they'd just give us a blank cheque ...

We have a devolved government now. We can – to a large extent – say what we want when it comes to health priorities. And who among us wouldn't want to help those living with cancer like Nicola and spare them the upheaval of moving to England?

If we have to fund it, metaphorically, out of our own pocket, I'm pretty sure that most of us will say: "So be it."

Yes, such medical treatment is expensive, but then that is the hallmark of a truly civilised, caring society – it doesn't baulk at doing the right thing.

Our health service has been subject to intense scrutiny recently, from crises at our A&Es to the revelation that the number of women being urgently seen by cancer specialists has dropped due to staff shortages.

There is something wrong here. But it's too easy to point fingers at someone else and move on.

Except where does that leave people like Nicola? In England. Where might that leave you, or one of your loved ones, some day? In England. Our political parties need to shake themselves out of their habitual post-election torpor and, you know, actually do something. If that involves reintroducing prescription charges for those able to afford it, or charging for services at the margins of our health system, then they should summon up the courage and do it.

After all, is it a right of someone on £40k a year to get free medication? No one expects anyone to pay the true cost of medicines, but surely a few pounds from those who can afford it isn't too much to ask?

Politics isn't always about hoovering up votes. It's also about taking tough decisions and handling the consequences.

It's called leadership – a necessary thing if there's to be any improvement in our lives. For too long our parties have been little more than pressure groups for more money for Northern Ireland – be it from London, Brussels, or Washington.

All well and good. But purse strings are tighter now across the world. We have to help our own people.

If our politicians had a tenth of the courage of women like Nicola Russell, Stormont would be fizzing with ideas and debate – and some (admittedly tough) decisions would be made.

Nicola and all the others who need these drugs need to know that we are with them – not just in word, but deed. They say home is where the heart is. It's time to show this is a place where we have very big hearts.

Follow me on Twitter: @GWalker9

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