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Minister: 'We need to start talking openly about fertility, sex and life in general post-cancer'

Today, Simon Harris launched the National Cancer Survivorship Needs Assessment, called Living With and Beyond Cancer in Ireland.

Health Minister Simon Harris speaking about the supports that cancer patients need to move on with their lives after getting the all clear.
Health Minister Simon Harris speaking about the supports that cancer patients need to move on with their lives after getting the all clear.
Image: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

HEALTH MINISTER SIMON Harris has said the State will give the financial supports necessary to support cancer survivors and the range of services they need post-treatment.

Today, the minister launched the National Cancer Survivorship Needs Assessment, called Living With and Beyond Cancer in Ireland.

Stakeholders were told at the event that only 13% of cancer survivors were not given a formalised cancer survivorship pathway for them post-treatment.

This is despite medical professionals stating that patients often require psychological help and counselling, have difficulties returning to work, experience relationship difficulties, as well as fertility and sexual difficulties when treatment has ceased.

Harris said that the difficulties associated with a cancer diagnosis don’t end when someone has been given the all clear.

While the positive is that over 200,000 people in living in Ireland are cancer survivors, he said supports should not be limited to the medical treatment given at hospitals.

He admitted that the health service, while giving excellent medical cancer treatment, has fallen short in giving survivors proper care plans to move forward with their lives.

Life beyond cancer

Harris said he attended a cancer support group for men where he heard their stories about how they were facing difficulties beyond the traditional medical issues.

Issues in relation to sexuality, issues in relation to the fact that your sex life may change forever, issues in relation to the fact that you may survive cancer but physically you may not be the same, in relation to the fact that you’ve gone from perhaps being the breadwinner in your house to now needing to meet the medical costs of cancer as well.
Real issues that we haven’t been talking about. People have been talking about the privately in these counselling sessions and with the Irish Cancer Society for years. But today, what we’re doing as a country, we’re recognising that there’s a whole range of needs, that people with cancer have and their family have.

221 Living With and Beyond Cancer in Ireland_90577974 (LtoR) Dr Jerome Coffey, Director of the NCCP-National Cancer Control Program, Louise Mullen, National Lead for Cancer Survivorship, Minister for Health Simon Harris and Averil Power CEO of Irish Cancer Society. Source: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

The minster said today is the first step in formalising and mapping out what supports cancer survivors say they need. Harris said cancer charities and organisations had been doing stellar work in offering treatment and therapies.

Supports for cancer survivors

“Being truthful, to date we haven’t supported it properly, or we’ve supported it on the very ad hoc basis. So we do need to look at the whole issue of standards, we need to look at the issue of how we map out those services, making sure that there’s an equity of access across the country. And then crucially, are we going to help financially support it and yes, we are.”

He said once the working group sets out the supports that are needed, services should be offered in the community, not in a hospital setting. 

Louise Mullen the Lead for Cancer Survivorship in the National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP) said the transition from diagnosis to treatment and then into post-treatment can be “very traumatic”, leaving many with a feeling of “what now” and with a fear that if they speak about their feelings it will be a burden on their families.

Averil Power, Chief Executive of the Irish Cancer Society welcomed its recommendations and called for the government to quickly put them into action.

She said:

Until now, the focus of Ireland’s cancer services has been on increasing the survival rate. This has delivered major improvements in the detection and treatment of cancer and ensured that 6 out of 10 people now survive a cancer diagnosis. While this is incredible progress, the long-term needs of cancer survivors have been overlooked.  
Surviving cancer can bring with it real challenges. While there is often an expectation people will return to ‘normal life’ after their treatment has stopped, the reality is often quite different. While many people return to good health, others experience ongoing issues for years afterwards.
Short- and long-term effects of cancer treatment can affect every aspect of daily life. Physical issues include incontinence, bowel problems, sexual dysfunction, weight changes, sleep disturbance and fatigue. Emotional and psychological effects include shock, distress and fear of recurrence, low self-esteem and depression. 
Social and intimacy issues include lack of support, fear of burdening family and friends, loss of identity and altered relationships. And financial issues include increased stress due to financial difficulties, lack of or reduced household income, and an increase in costs to help manage side effects of treatment.

Speaking about fertility specifically, Power said there’s a need for patients to get assistance it from the very start of their diagnosis.

“Having an open and honest conversation with their physician about the fact that their fertility may be impaired, about the treatment and having the option through the public health service of taking preventive steps, things like I’m freezing, so that they may be able to reactivate those in years to come and then when they go to use IVF, having that free here like it is in other countries.”

To date, Power said State support for cancer survivors has been “patchy and inconsistent”, adding that now was the time for the minister to make progress. 

A working group will now assess the recommendations and advise government about the services and financial supports that are needed for delivery.

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