‘Within my lifetime we could eradicate cervical cancer with the HPV vaccine and screening’

Dr Robert O’Connor, Irish Cancer Society head of research, believes education is key to a healthy society

Dr Robert O'Connor is head of research at the Irish Cancer Society, the largest NGO funder of Irish cancer research, spending roughly €3 million annually to improve cancer outcome through research.

Thanks to the generosity of donors – and events such as the Colour Dash family runs in June – O'Connor and his team support the work of more than 100 world-class researchers in institutions and hospitals all across the country. The father of one, who lives in Co Meath with his wife Tracy and son Ronan (17), says it is a huge honour to oversee that investment and continually learn new things about how to influence the array of challenges that the various forms of cancer cause.

We ask this health hero what makes him proud, how he unwinds and what needs to be done to improve our health system.

1) What is your proudest achievement?

“I’ve played an active role with many amazing people in starting to turn around the decline in HPV vaccination uptake. At least one in 50 of all invasive cancer diagnoses here are caused by the HPV virus and the vaccine is a proven and safe way to prevent the silent infection that causes these cancers. Uptake has now risen by more than 10 per cent and the extra girls vaccinated this year alone will mean an additional 1,000 women will be saved difficult and painful pre-cancer treatment, 20 will never develop cancer and eight will not die. If we could get good uptake of this vaccine among boys and girls, combined with cervical screening, within my lifetime we could eradicate cervical cancer and greatly reduce cases of several other forms.”

2) What motivates you in your work and life?

“I like to try and make a difference, challenge myself and have fun.”

3) What do you do to keep mind and body healthy and well?

“I give my best in work and have a number of non-work activities which allow me to actively give something back to my community. These, along with my friends, are important for my physical and mental health. I’ve tried to build exercise into my routine and eat a varied and mixed diet with quite a lot of vegetables and fruit but I like lots of different foods and enjoy cooking.”

4) What are the most important factors to maintain a healthy society?

“First and foremost is education. Research has proven time and time again that on average those with [a good] education live much longer than those without. Although this may seem a strange answer, education underpins every facet of health. The other key proven factors are regular exercise built into everyday life, strong community and personal bonds and relationships, constant intellectual challenge and a mixed and varied diet with lots of fruit and veg. An accessible equitable healthcare system is what really separates great countries from the rest.”

5) What needs to be done in Ireland to achieve this?

“I don’t have the answers but things that I think are worth thinking about include engaging in a community-wide dialogue based on the facts which empower us to agree what is collectively best for us all.

“Based on that collective view of our health aspiration, we should agree a long-term plan and focus on achieving agreed health outcomes as a community.

“We need people to know that they can have a significant influence over their own health and be empowered to act on that. I also believe in supporting health leaders and politicians to make bold, visionary steps to improve national health and education and not be encumbered by a need for short-term local wins.”

6) What do you think is the most pressing health issue in Ireland today?

“Morale is a crippling issue. Our health system has some of the most brilliant, able and dedicated people in the world but collectively we can spend too much time on the negative. This undermines the many great people in the system already and discourages the next generation from coming in with their energy, vitality and ideas.

“Also, misinformation is now a vast malign but under-recognised negative influence on every aspect of health. In cancer alone, many would never develop illness in the first place if they got the right facts. But also, increasingly, unscrupulous people are profiteering from false claims about what is good or bad for us – and this is aided by a media focused on advertising rather than accurate public information. It is costing millions which could be used elsewhere and it is increasing illness and killing people prematurely.”

7) How do you think the Minister for Health needs to tackle this?

“Fortunately, Irish ministers for health have tended to be motivated and visionary and our current minister is no exception. Any minister needs to engage with the whole community to lead that vision of health, to support, motivate and empower healthcare professionals to deliver their best and have the financial support (through allocation and taxation) to pay for the inherent costs of further improvements in health technology – and to deal with a growing and aging population.”

8) What do you do to relax and unwind?

“I’ve scuba-dived for many years and always enjoyed the outdoors, especially the sea. I’m a Cub Scout leader which is great craic with kids and my fellow leaders and I volunteer with Meath Civil Defence, which sees me provide community support in things like concerts, marine activities and occasional emergencies.”

9) What makes you laugh?

“Having fun with people – either at work or during my other activities. I always say “we’ll be a long time dead” so I believe we should laugh while we can. Occasionally I go to gigs where comedians like Des Bishop can bring tears [of laughter] to my eyes.”

10) Where would you like to live other than Ireland and why?

"Norway – it has beautiful countryside of rolling pastures and forests, snow, mountains and seaside. And the people have a fantastic community spirit and visionary ambition to overcome challenges and look after each other."