Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Statements


1:45 pm

Photo of Duncan SmithDuncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Whip for allowing this matter to be added to the clár this week. I am on the Business Committee but we all know who ultimately sorts out the schedule for the week, so I thank the Whip.

I welcome the opportunity to speak about and mark breast cancer awareness month. Unfortunately, breast cancer has touched the lives of many of us in this House and people throughout the country. It has had a devastating effect on lives and anything we can do, as the Parliament, to raise awareness is important. What is ever more important is that we use our powers as legislators to ensure that Ireland offers best-in-class healthcare, including access to screening and diagnosis.

While today we may focus on discussing the many issues women face in getting diagnosed and having treatment, we need to ensure that coming out of the pandemic we take another look at healthcare in the country. For too long, women’s health and well-being have come second in Irish healthcare. While breast cancer has had so much investment that outcomes are positive for many, we need to ensure equal access to good cancer care for anyone who gets the devastating news of a cancer diagnosis.

We know that early detection is vital in the battle against all cancers. Screening is an essential, and sometimes life-saving service. However, we need to ensure that our screening programmes are properly resourced. BreastCheck screenings fell by two thirds in 2020 due to the pandemic and we are told it could take up to three years to clear the backlog that has built up. The Government needs to commit to providing additional resources to clear this backlog and seek to reverse the recent extension of the screening interval to three years, bringing it back to the recommended two years. We need to make clear that this backlog does not involve people waiting for a statutory document, such as a driving licence or passport. These backlogs are about people's lives and ultimately a backlog like this that is not addressed speedily will end up with people becoming very ill and, unfortunately, dying. This is absolutely urgent and should be a priority.

Without routine screening there is a risk of delayed diagnosis for women. Women will have delayed diagnoses that could have been treated sooner. Women who will be diagnosed at a later date may need to have a more aggressive form of treatment because of the suspension of testing. We cannot have this happen and I urge the Government to consider investing in our BreastCheck capacity. It is of vital importance that, as we get our health services back and running, we ensure that what is preventable is prevented.

Breast examinations are highly important, as are mammograms. Many charities do extraordinary work in raising awareness about the signs and symptoms of breast cancer and encourage regular self-examination. However, the Government must do more to assure women that if they feel they may have symptoms, they will be treated in a quick and timely manner. I say this because of the very sad testimony of the late Sarah Harding who gave us her experience of discovering she had breast cancer. The world was left shocked earlier this year when the former Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding died from breast cancer in September at only 39 years of age. In a newspaper interview before her death, she said that due to the pandemic she put off going to the doctor when she first suspected she had symptoms. We need to ensure that no woman ever feels this way. Sarah Harding's untimely death has shone a light on the importance of making women of all ages more breast aware and ensuring they all have access.

The Government should look at working with social media influencers on the signs and symptoms of breast cancer to encourage young women to attend their doctor if they are in any way concerned. The waiting lists these young women are likely to experience must be dealt with as an urgent priority. While younger women are less likely to be struck by breast cancer, we know that 23% of diagnoses occur in women under 50 years. This has been raised by previous speakers. In recognition of this, we should look to extend the BreastCheck service to younger women to encourage and embed a culture of prevention within our health service. We have seen from the free at the point of access operation of PCR testing across the country that if we provide services that can accommodate the numbers required and remove the financial barrier, more and more people are likely to avail of them. It gives people confidence and allows us to capture more cases within all age groups as early as possible.

I will touch an one other point today that has been raised by Alcohol Action Ireland which reiterated today that the provisions in the Alcohol Act 2018 would help to inform consumers of the link between alcohol and all cancers, including breast cancer. Alcohol is responsible for one in eight cases of breast cancer. Approximately 12% of all breast cancers, or 300 cases per year, are associated with alcohol consumption. We can come to the House and make statements but there is legislation that would directly impact these statistics. It has passed this House but has been left in limbo. Why can the Government not implement this legislation as soon as possible? What is holding us back from bringing it forward? We speak often in this House about projects and legislation that will have impacts years down the line but we have in this legislation something that can make a difference right now.

We have had far too many cases of poor treatment and poor service in women's healthcare in Ireland. We need to deliver progressive and proactive actions so that in years to come we do not look back and regret that when we had the opportunity to make real tangible change in healthcare for the women of Ireland, we did not deliver. If we continue in this vein, we will continue to have horrible stories of late detection and missed diagnoses, and we will have condemned another generation of Irish women to a service that falls far below par. Women across Ireland deserve so much better than what our health service has delivered for generations to date.


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