19 March 2005

Unison.ie / Irish Independent

Shock as rural cancer victims go for drastic surgery option

SOME cancer sufferers in Co Donegal have taken the drastic decision to have breast removal operations rather than face the gruelling journey to Dublin for vital radiation treatment.

In a shocking indictment of the health system, it has emerged that the absence of a radiation oncologist at Letterkenny General Hospital is resulting in unnecessary mastectomies in some cases, and lengthy delays in the treatment of certain cancers in others.

A group of medical professionals in the county has also maintained that many patients, particularly those receiving palliative care, are refusing radiation treatment because of the exhausting travel involved - anything up to six hours at a time to the capital.

Fears for the future of cancer services in Co Donegal have prompted consultants, GPs and other medical professionals to come together to lobby for their retention and development.

The group, led by Dr Kevin Moran, regional director of cancer services in the north west, is calling for the appointment of a radiation oncologist, a permanent breast surgeon and a second bowel surgeon at Letterkenny General Hospital.

If this does not happen, they fear that the existing services, which serve a population of 120,000 people, will diminish and ultimately disappear.

Explained Dr Moran: "Our fear is that cancer services at Letterkenny General will disappear by a process of natural attrition rather than by an act of commission.

"For example, if a permanent breast surgeon is not appointed, then breast cancer services will go.

"And as a consequence the medical oncologist would go leaving us with a very fragmented service," he said.

Dr Moran vehemently refutes the travel-or-die mindset which suggests that unless you receive cancer treatment in large centres such as Dublin or Galway, your chances of survival are lessened.

"I am not advocating that we should treat any cancer in Letterkenny unless we can get the same results as in Dublin or Boston or Baltimore but there are cancers such as breast, bowel and prostate cancer which can be treated.

"We urgently and desperately need to get a radiation oncologist, which is the essential third part of the equation, alongside surgery and medical oncology, in cancer treatment," he said.

In the country's most peripheral county there are 50 new breast cancer cases, 70 new bowel cancer cases and 80 new prostate cancer cases annually.

The group claims that the absence of a radiation oncologist is leading women to opt for mastectomies who do not require them, just to avoid travelling to Dublin for treatment.

It is also leading to delays in treatment for rectal and prostate cancers where men could have to wait up to six months, while many patients requiring palliative care, who would benefit from radiation treatment, are not availing of it because of the travel involved.

"When I came here four years ago, a consultant oncologist from St Luke's travelled here twice a month but this has not happened for the past five or six years," he said.

The group is urging the Department to consider a proposal for breast cancer services which would see Letterkenny and Sligo General Hospitals being considered as one breast cancer unit with medical expertise on both sites.

Anita Guidera

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