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Opinion We need to listen to and support cancer patients during this pandemic

Conor O’Leary of Purple House Cancer Support Centre in Bray says cancer patients must be a priority for the government during Covid-19.

LAST WEEK THE HSE announced that cancer services will not return to pre-Covid levels until December at the earliest, under the HSE’s plan for non-Covid care ‘A Safe Return to Health Services’.

This is unacceptable and will most certainly lead to a tsunami of mental health issues for cancer patients.

We need to start preparing now for the mental health needs of cancer patients. We must ensure that children and teenagers living with cancer have access to the support they need at the time when the issues present, if not we risk bigger mental health problems as they grow into adulthood.

The World Health Organization says that the current Covid-19 pandemic is testing the emotional and mental health resilience of many and it will lead to increasing demand for mental health services. A recent study by Maynooth University and Trinity College (2020) found that 41% of the respondents reported feeling lonely and a further 20% reported feeling anxious.

Similarly, research published in the Lancet documented an increased prevalence of mental health symptoms such as low mood, anxiety and insomnia in cancer patients during this pandemic.

The burden of cancer

There is no doubt that Covid-19 has brought us some very challenging times, along with increased levels of worry, anxiety and uncertainty, however, cancer patients are living with extraordinary challenges and stresses.

Every day at Purple House Cancer Support Centre, a front-line community-based organisation dealing directly with cancer patients, we are hearing about the anxiety, fear and loneliness caused by the pandemic.

Cancer patients are in the high-risk category of contracting Covid-19, so they must be extra careful, which has resulted in isolation among many patients.

Due to the ongoing Covid restrictions, many patient’s social interactions are limited, they must attend their hospital appointments alone and often they cannot see family members in their hour of need.

Social relationships have ended abruptly which has resulted in feelings of loss, and funerals are not how they used to be. This has a direct impact on the grieving process and may lead to mental anguish later. Cancer does not stop during Covid-19. Sadly, people are still receiving the news that they have the disease.

Our telephone support line has seen a huge increase in calls from people who are very anxious about having to go into hospital for surgery or treatment. They are worried about getting Covid19; however, they also realise that they cannot defer their appointment or surgery.

Once the restrictions were announced last March, we established a Covid-19 Cancer Support Team at Purple House. We knew we needed to respond quickly. Basically, this involved moving all our services from a physical setting to an online, telephone, and remote setting to keep both patients and our staff and volunteers safe.

Our counselling service has moved to telephone and video sessions. This ensures patients receive vital psychological support wherever they live. Patients now participate in our programmes like The Stanford Cancer Thriving & Surviving Programme from their hospital bed or from the safety of their own home and they regularly use Zoom to attend our Cancer support groups and classes such as yoga, creative writing, relaxation, Ukulele lessons and the Purple House Choir.

During Covid-19, the demand for our food distribution service has increased tenfold. This is due to unemployment and the need for cancer patients to self-isolate at home. Cancer patients cannot risk visiting the supermarket for groceries to feed themselves or their children; they cannot afford to get Covid-19.

Thanks to the generosity of the public, our volunteers are delivering food to Cancer patients daily. For many patients they visited, this was their own human contact of the day.

Impacts on families

The impact of Covid-19 on children living with cancer is huge. Every child needs one good adult. The one good adult concept is thought to be a strong protective factor in a child’s well-being and mental health, however, when mum or dad is ill with cancer, the one good adult may be absent.

This can lead to a child feeling unsafe, which is why community-based psycho-oncology services for children must be resourced. At Purple House, we support many children who are cancer patients and as well as those who have a family member with cancer. Our child and adolescence counsellors work with patients to support their emotional and mental health wellbeing during this time.

Central to being able to support cancer patients during Covid-19 was our ability as an organisation to react quickly and adapt our services quickly. We worked with the HSE to advise them of our support plans and we notified all the Community Call Helplines in Ireland of our services.

In my role as Manager of Purple House Cancer Support Centre in Bray, I have seen first-hand the outpouring of positivity and goodwill from our communities. Everyone coming together to help each other, and the most vulnerable in our towns and villages.

Daily, we receive phone calls from people who have been temporarily laid off from work, offering their time to volunteer to help us to deliver food hampers to cancer patients who are self-isolating or offering to drive patients into hospitals for their Chemotherapy or Radiotherapy treatments.

It is vital now that cancer patients continue to use our health service. If you are not feeling well or notice something unusual, phone your GP and get it checked. Our health service is there to be used, do not put anything off because of Covid-19.

The mental health effects of Covid-19 will be with us for a very long time. There is a level of anxiety that cancer patients experience, however when you add the anxiety that Covid-19 brings, it can be very distressing.

Continued investment in our Community-based Cancer Support Services and Mental Health Cancer Services is vital to ensure that the organisations working on the frontline have the resources to look after the needs of the most vulnerable members of our communities, not just in times of crisis, but every day.

Conor O’Leary is the Manager of Purple House Cancer Support Centre in Bray, Co. Wicklow. He holds a BA (Hons) in Economics & Sociology from UCD. He is a Psychotherapist in training and is a member of IACP. If you can help, please visit If you need Cancer support, please visit or call Purple House on 01-2866966.


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