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'The impact is massive on my family': Cancer patients seeking treatment abroad impacted by Covid19 crisis

A number of cancer patients rely on treatment overseas for various different types of cancers.

Image: Shutterstock/Aleona

IRISH CITIZENS WHO have been diagnosed with cancer and who have been undergoing treatment abroad are facing long delays in continuing their course of treatment due to the outbreak of Covid-19 across the world. 

While many patients are treated in Ireland through the public and private healthcare system, some are referred for treatment and clinical trials abroad for what they describe as a “lifesaver”. 

But as countries closes their borders across the world and as healthcare systems redeploy resources to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, cancer patients are becoming increasingly anxious about the future of their treatment and how vulnerable they are to contracting the virus itself, in the meantime. 

There is a 30 day ban on entry from Europe into the US, as well as a similar ban on travellers outside of Europe entering the EU member states. 

Wishing Europe, countries such as Germany, Poland and Italy have also closed their borders to non-nationals as they try to combat the spread of the virus. 

The HSE said that while some treatments abroad may still continue, it recognised the difficulty the emergency posed to cancer patients with a weakened immune system while the Covid-19 virus is in the community, as well as recognising the Department of Foreign Affairs advice to “avoid non-essential travel”. 

“Advice for cancer patients on travelling abroad for scheduled treatments is delivered on a case by case basis and by an individual patient’s oncology team,” a spokesperson said.

“The national recommendations are to avoid unnecessary travel. Hospitals and healthcare facilities in other countries are experiencing increased demand from Covid-19.

“Some travel abroad for treatment may continue at this time but a determination will be made in the interest of an individual patient and their needs by their treating clinician.”

The Irish Cancer Society said it was also aware of the difficulties that the health emergency and restricted travel measures poses for cancer patients in Ireland. 

Clinic trial

Jan Rynne has been travelling to the UK every six months for treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL). She began treatment back in 2014 after being first diagnosed nine years ago in 2011. 

The treatment she was receiving was significant in reducing the cancer, bringing the presence of it in her blood from 97% down to 1%. 

Her latest appointment in the UK, scheduled for 23 March, was cancelled in light of the Covid-19 emergency, and while the Leeds-based clinic moved outside of ordinary protocol to courier the life-saving drugs to Jan, her future appointments now remain in doubt.

“I got the opportunity to take part in a clinical trial in UK for what they’re calling novel drugs or therapies,” she told TheJournal.ie. 

“CLL is incurable so it is not going to be cured ever but depending on complications that come with disease, you can have different treatment.

“Chemo wouldn’t have suited me and the only treatment for me was to look for alternative treatment and it wasn’t available in Ireland and my Irish haematologist oncologist referred me to [the UK]. 

Along with the treatment in the UK, Rynne also undergoes a monthly plasma infusion treatment which boosts her immune system and drastically increases her quality of life. 

This particular treatment, however, is also being used to treat people with Covid-19 and Jan now fears that this treatment will be withdrawn from her after this months’ appointment was cancelled.

“The impact is massive on my family,” the 48-year-old who is also co-founder of CLL Ireland said. 

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“In tandem with the treatment I get in the UK I’m on a monthly visit with my Irish haematologist and it’s considered supportive care, I get an infusion monthly here,” she explained. 

“I still have to be careful and it doesn’t sort my entire immune system out but it gives me confidence to go to the shopping centre and do all the normal things. This predated the UK treatment and I got a phonecall [last week] to say this treatment is going to be used for Covid-19 now.”

The Irish Cancer Society told TheJournal.ie that it is aware of the difficulties facing cancer patients under the current circumstances and said patients will receive individual advice from their local oncologists in Ireland based on their own personal circumstances. 

“In the current difficult and dynamic situation for cancer patients, doctors in oncology departments are constantly updating individual treatment advice,” it said. 

“The Irish Cancer Society is aware that some patients receive treatment abroad. This is a difficult time for these patients because of treatment challenges, infection worries and the difficulties associated with current travel restrictions.  

“We strongly advise patients to contact their local oncology clinic before undertaking any travel or treatment abroad.”

The charity has been forced to cancel its street collections on Daffodil Day this Friday as a result of the social distancing measures, and is appealing for donations online from members of the public

A number of other advocacy organisations – including the Trans Equality Network and the Endometriosis Association of Ireland – have also expressed concern to TheJournal.ie for the number of people who rely on overseas treatment. 

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