Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Statements


2:05 pm

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats) | Oireachtas source

I very much welcome these statements and the opportunity to mark breast cancer awareness month and raise issues of concern, but also to give credit where it is due. There is no doubt that the breast cancer services are very good and improving all the time, notwithstanding the difficulties in the past couple of years. It is an element of the overall cancer strategy which, again, has taken very much the right kind of approach. It is not perfect by any means but, notwithstanding the issues relating to inadequate funding that need to be addressed, the approach that was taken some years ago in setting up this strategy, identifying centres of excellence and making the case very strongly for the need to have a clear strategy in place and following it is the right one overall. It was certainly encouraging that representatives of BreastCheck and the national cancer control programme appeared before the Oireachtas committee on Tuesday and, in the main, notwithstanding what has been happening in the past couple of years, the news from both of those organisations was good.

We all know that breast cancer is a significant cancer. It is a significant thing for all women in terms of concerns regarding their own health. It is very much up there as one of the main areas of concern for women. It is a concern for most of women's lives. As Members know, the risk of developing breast cancer very much increases with age. There is also the hereditary factor. It is something that can dominate people's lives. All of us - women in particular - are conscious of that, its danger and its implications. It is something about which we are all very sensitive, and understandably so, because it is the most common cause of invasive cancers among women in this country. One in seven women in Ireland will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some stage in their lives. That is a very high figure. There are approximately 3,500 new cases each year and the national cancer strategy predicts that figure will rise through the next 20 years or so. The indications are that the figure will rise to more than 4,500 cases per year in that timeframe. That has significant implications in terms of resources, location of services and all those kinds of things.

It is not good enough to set up services and keep funding them the way they were funded the previous year. Obviously, funding has to take account of growth in population and increases in prevalence. We can never afford to sit on our laurels in relation to that.

The incidence of breast cancer has increased over time, which is a matter of concern. It increased by 2% per year between 1994 and 2008. The incidence rate has levelled off since 2008. That is partially due to improved detection rates, which have been very good. BreastCheck is an essential element of that. Mortality rates decreased by 2% each year between 1994 and 2016. The reason for that is earlier diagnosis, improvements in treatment and a general raising of awareness in relation to the issues around breast cancer.

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health discussed the issue earlier this week. We had representatives from the national cancer control programme in with us. They made the point that approximately one quarter of breast cancers may be preventable through modifiable behaviours and environments. That is something that has only recently come to be realised by people. The representatives made the point that the first line of defence against breast cancer is a more healthy lifestyle. That underlines the need to place a greater emphasis on encouraging health awareness and promotion. Thankfully, a good bit of that is happening through Healthy Ireland, but we need to do more in that respect.

Obviously, smoking has an impact in relation to incidence rates of breast cancer, as does maintaining a healthy weight. As a country, we are really struggling with obesity levels and many people are overweight. There needs to be a far greater focus on this area. There is also a link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer. I asked one of the representatives attending the committee meeting a few days ago to quantify the increased risk associated with even the moderate consumption of alcohol. The additional risk of developing breast cancer is put at between 10% and 12% as a result of the connection between alcohol consumption and the development of breast cancer. While self-examination, awareness and all of that is really important, and that point must be stressed, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, a healthy weight, in particular, and reducing our consumption of alcohol are also important.

There are many issues to discuss in relation to breast cancer. We must address the issue of the time lost as a result of the Covid pandemic and the cyberattack. We must also ensure that younger people are dealt with as early as possible where there is evidence of the presence of hereditary factors.


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