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Dublin: 18 °C Tuesday 16 September, 2014

Column: To end cancer, we must close the health gap between rich and poor

It is only at the local level that we can close the “cancer gap” between the rich and poor, writes consultant medical oncologist Professor John Kennedy.

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TODAY, THE IRISH Cancer Society publishes its strategy statement for the next five years entitled ‘Towards a Future Without Cancer’.

This is the first time that we have indicated that not only is this our ultimate goal, but that there is a real possibility that our children may live in a world where people don’t die from cancer. This is our vision and our mission.

For all of us who are part of the Society – our Board, our staff, our volunteers, our donors and our fundraisers – the services we run, the funds we raise, the researchers we support, and the policy decisions for which we lobby – are all aimed at achieving this ambition: a future without cancer.

Rich and poor – and accident of birth

I work as a Consultant Medical Oncologist in St James’ Hospital and St Luke’s Hospital and directly care for many patients with cancer. My personal ambition is that those working on cures for cancer will ultimately make my job redundant.

While highly accomplished researchers, many of whom are funded by the Irish Cancer Society, work on finding a cure for cancer, there are many changes we can make to reduce our risk of developing this disease.

Unfortunately, these changes are far easier for a well-educated, better-off person to make than for those who are not so favoured by accidents of birth. Thus, our battle against cancer is not just about medical research, it is also about closing the health gap between the rich and poor. The causes for such disparities are complex and need urgent intervention at the highest levels.

Local action

For the first time ever, the Irish Cancer Society will create ‘Cancer Action Communities’ in partnership with other organisations located locally. We are doing this because we believe that it is only at the local level that we can really make a difference and effect closure of the “cancer gap” between the rich and poor. It is not acceptable to us that there are communities where the incidence of cancer is far higher than it should be and where lives are being lost to preventable disease.

We want to fully understand why people who live in socially disadvantaged communities are twice as likely to get cancer than their better off neighbours. We will work closely with these communities to design specific programmes aimed at building a new future with them, a future without cancer.

We remain very ambitious for cancer research in Ireland. Breakthroughs in understanding and treating cancer mean that there are people alive now who would otherwise not be, however, there is more, much more, to be done and we are determined to partner the best Irish researchers on delivering on the promise of the molecular revolution in understanding cancer.

Complex social and economic aspects

For as long as cancer exists, there needs to be a concentrated, unshakeable effort to win a battle that we are only beginning to understand. This includes the complex social and economic aspects that determine ones likelihood of being diagnosed with cancer.

Thus, our strategy focuses on four ambitious areas – to empower people to reduce their cancer risk, to support those living with cancer, to advance cancer research and to inform and influence public policy around cancer. By delivering this we believe many more people will have a future without cancer.

In the 50 years since its foundation, the Irish Cancer Society has grown into an organisation that can credibly make bold statements like this. During the last 50 years, advances in cancer treatment and prevention have been extraordinary. We now know that by not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, eating fresh fruit and vegetables and exercising regularly, that we can reduce our cancer risk by 50 per cent. This is a remarkable fact. For people who do develop cancer, advances in treatment mean that it is now a disease that is routinely survived.

A future without cancer is possible

Truly enormous challenges lie ahead, but we are building on the work already done by cancer specialists, the research and voluntary communities and politicians. It is our collective vision, as people working towards the same goal, that we can say that a future without cancer is possible.

Governments will play a very significant role in creating a future without cancer. Previous governments in Ireland should be acknowledged for their leadership and their ambition. We invite this Government, and future governments, to join us in our strategy, and to take on working towards a future without cancer too.

Patients will continue to be our focus. We want to improve the lives of anyone affected by cancer. We have led the way in supporting them, and we will continue to do so.

It is these patients, as well as our donors and our volunteers, who have spurred us on to create this strategy. Frankly, for them, nothing less will do.

Professor John Kennedy is one of the country’s leading medical oncologists and Chairman of the board of the Irish Cancer Society. He currently holds the position of Consultant Medical Oncologist at St James’s Hospital and St Luke’s Hospital and is Clinical Professor of Medicine in the University of Dublin, Trinity College.

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