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Ballymena woman featured in UTV’s ‘Up Close’ looking at cancer care in Northern Ireland


“I was told I would have six months. So if I hadn't actually gone (private) at that stage and had to wait, I probably wouldn't be here.” – Cancer patient Alison Graham


The next episode of UTV’s award winning current affairs programme investigates cancer services in Northern Ireland against the backdrop of the pandemic and the plans for overhaul, speaking to senior surgeons, politicians and charity heads about the 10 year cancer strategy launched earlier this year.


The programme also speaks to patients and families about their own personal experiences.



Produced and presented by UTV’s Alison Fleming, the programme looks at why our waiting lists are so long, looking at the shortfalls in the cancer care system pre-pandemic, and the effect that the pandemic had on diagnoses and treatments.



Prof. Mark Taylor from the Royal College of Surgeons talks about the impact of the pandemic on cancer treatments with resources being moved away from cancer surgery to treat Covid patients.


Others point to an ageing population, staff shortages and historic underinvestment in staff, equipment and awareness raising, and a failure to implement recommendations from previous reports all contributing to the problem.



Anna Gavin from the NI Cancer Registry talks about the long waiting lists even before the pandemic saying, “Our service is at a breaking point,” explaining that cancer did have some priority and there were targets set for cancer diagnosis and treatment. But because of the volume and complexity of cases, it’s been very difficult to meet those targets.



Alison Graham, a 59 year old mother of three from the Ballykeel area of Ballymena, tells Alison Fleming of showing symptoms in late 2019 and despite deteriorating health, she remained undiagnosed when the pandemic hit. Not knowing when she would get an appointment, she decided to see specialists privately in June 2020, and was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer which had spread to her lungs.  


She said, “I was told I would have six months. So if I hadn't actually gone at that stage and had to wait, I probably wouldn't be here.”



And Alison is not alone going down the private treatment route with Mark Regan from the Kingsbridge Hospital saying, “We're seeing that demand increasing from what we call ‘self-pay’ patients and patients who are not insured... now paying themselves to come privately.”


Rachelle Thompson from Bangor was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2019, and a second cancer diagnosis meant she had to have a mastectomy.  As she waited for her surgery, she said, “This thing was like a ticking time bomb inside me... I just wanted it away.” 


She eventually had her surgery, despite several postponements due to the pandemic.  


She’s very open about the effect on her mental health that her illness has had, and is grateful to the charity sector for their support during the pandemic.  She comments, “Without them, I don’t think I’d be here.”




The new 10 year strategy is also discussed, which aims to change the system, providing equal access to diagnosis and treatment, regardless of where a patient may live in Northern Ireland.  It also aims to provide smoother pathways to improve cancer waiting times and ultimately, patient outcomes. It will invest in cancer services and enable new ‘pandemic proof’ models of care. 


Hundreds of people helped develop this strategy, including Department of Health officials, health care professionals, charities and those living with cancer.



Heather Monteverde from Macmillan Cancer Care who worked on the strategy is hopeful that the situation will improve:


It can't be a document that’s set in tablets of stone for the next ten years. We need to look at what's coming down the track and plan for it. But yes, I'm very optimistic that things can change, but it's going to take commitment from all the stakeholders and it's going to take money.”



Alison Fleming said: “Thank you to all the contributors especially the patients and families who told their very personal and moving stories and shared their experiences. In doing so, we hope viewers will understand the stories behind the statistics.”


Up Close’ airs next Tuesday 27th September at 10.45pm on UTV.  You can catch up afterwards on www.itv.com/utvprogrammes