Belfast Telegraph

Chemotherapy for cancer patients not held in Northern Ireland on bank holidays

The Belfast Health and Social Care Trust said it's not always possible to reschedule appointments (stock photo).
The Belfast Health and Social Care Trust said it's not always possible to reschedule appointments (stock photo).

Chemotherapy for cancer patients is being rescheduled because Northern Ireland's main cancer centre doesn't operate on bank holidays.

The Belfast Health and Social Care Trust said it tried to rearrange appointments for approximately 780 patients who had their appointments at the Belfast Cancer Centre cancelled in April and May but it was not always possible.

The Trust prioritises rescheduling appointments for patients who have cancer which hasn't spread - known as primary cancer. Some patients who have cancer which has spread - secondary cancer - do not have their cancelled appointments rescheduled.

Speaking to BBC News NI, the trust said it was aware of the "anxiety and inequity" felt by patients whose appointments have been cancelled.

Chemotherapy for patients will be interrupted in July and August, with approximately 304 affected.

One patient who spoke to the BBC has terminal cancer and feels she hasn't been given a fair chance as a "patient hit with bank holidays".

48-year-old Sinead Joyce is a mother of two from Belfast who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009.

She has had several cycles of chemotherapy at the centre, where approximately 400 chemotherapy patients from Northern Ireland are seen every week.

Patients receiving chemotherapy are given a set day they will receive it.

Ms Joyce was allocated Mondays on a weekly basis - meaning she would miss chemotherapy on bank holiday Mondays.

She said she didn't want to miss out and pleaded with staff to reschedule the cancelled sessions.

"I was worried and imagining that the cells were growing and spreading and I was not getting my medicine into me.

"I don't know if it made a difference, but I do wonder," she said.

She said she felt anxious about missing her sessions during a trial starting in March, which offered chemotherapy that offered her a chance to extend her life.

It lasted over an initial 12-week period with the potential for it to be extended - but Ms Joyce realised she would miss three of the 12 treatments because of St Patrick's Day, Easter Monday and May Day.

Her chemotherapy trial was stopped when scans showed growth in her tumours.

"Every bank holiday I asked to be rescheduled, but was told no. Physically, they said there was nowhere they could put me.

"There was no pharmacy and there were no nurses - it was not possible.

"They said there was nothing to suggest that missing a treatment makes a difference."

Capacity issues

The Belfast Trust said it made an effort to reschedule appointments for some patients, but that this was not always possible due to capacity issues.

Four formal complaints were received about the issue in the past year, although it's though others were received informally.

A spokesperson said the trust tried to reschedule chemotherapy sessions for patients with cancer which had not spread where a cure was "potentially achievable".

A spokesperson said this was because of "some clinical evidence" that supported delivering "the planned dose of chemotherapy on schedule".

They added that patients whose cancer had spread were not rescheduled to receive their treatment because of "less evidence".

The Belfast Trust said "substantive service investment" would be required for patients to receive planned chemotherapy on bank holidays.

"There are significant capacity challenges which the Northern Ireland Cancer Centre faces in treating all our patients in a timely manner and we very much regret that some patients experience deferred treatment which is not what we would wish to happen.

"We continue to do everything we can to minimise waiting times for patients and to explore how we can improve the situation for patients whose treatment falls on a public holiday."

Statutory holidays

The chief executive of Cancer Focus NI Roisin Foster said she understands that staff who work in the Cancer Centre are fully entitled to have statutory holidays.

“There is, however, an understanding that the sooner cancer is diagnosed and treated the better. It is, therefore, understandable that patients can get very anxious when their treatment is delayed.

"Patients whose cancer has recurred or who are receiving palliative treatment will be very concerned to ensure that they receive optimal treatment to give them the very best outcome. But cancers vary greatly and the issue of speed of treatment can be more critical for some patients than others," she said.

"Unlike sudden staff illness, Bank Holidays are known about well in advance. It should be possible to plan for this, prioritise patients for whom a delay would present a greater risk and reassure others that delaying to the next week will not have an impact.  It would be very concerning for patients for treatment to be delayed for more than a week.

“I would also welcome more research looking at the effect of delayed treatment on secondary cancer patients.”

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