New drugs switch focus to living long term with cancer

Irish Cancer Society’s national conference hears positive stories of living with cancer

New drugs and treatments have encouraged people to focus more on living long term with cancer, rather than dying from it, a conference on surviving cancer has heard.

“If I had gotten cancer a few years earlier, I probably would be dead,” said survivor and cancer care worker Rhona Nally.

Ms Nally, originally from Roscommon but now living in Dublin, was speaking as the Irish Cancer Society's national conference got under way in Dublin on Friday. She told The Irish Times her story was a good example of people living with cancer, as others lived with heart disease or any serious, chronic illness.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003 while in her 40s, she received treatment, but was told in 2004 the pain in the small of her back meant it had metastasised. She was told it was stage four and terminal. But 13 years later, as a result of advances in treatment and the drug Herceptin, she says she is “obviously well” and working in cancer support.


However, she called for more psychological support for patients. Such support was generally there for primary cancer patients, but more was needed for people with later-stage illness, she said.

Tom Hope, from Dunboyne, Co Meath said he was not receiving treatment for prostate cancer, although it was diagnosed in 2009 when he was aged 62. “I am on active surveillance, they monitor me,” he said.

Mr Hope said he was given the option of an operation to remove the prostate but there was a risk it could have left him incontinent. As the cancer was not causing him any difficulty, and was still not doing so, he opted against the operation.

The conference heard that 150,000 people are now living with, or beyond, cancer in Ireland and there is a growing need to understand the life-changing implications a diagnosis can bring.

Minister for Health Simon Harris departed from a prepared script to stress his support for the draft legislation on the sale of alcohol. He said the Public Health Alcohol Bill should not be delayed any longer in the Oireachtas as alcohol abuse was “one of the most serious issues in this country”.

Donal Buggy, head of services and advocacy at the Irish Cancer Society, said “a huge part of survivorship is dealing with the psychological effects of cancer. The Irish Cancer Society has heard over and over again from cancer patients and their families that, as soon as they hear the word ‘cancer’, it can feel that the person they were vanishes and they become a patient. All focus turns to treatment while the emotional needs of the person with cancer are often overlooked.”

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is an Irish Times journalist