Each year, Cancer Focus NI supports 6,000 cancer patients, their families and carers across Northern Ireland. Due to COVID-19, the charity has put face-to-face contact on hold but is still providing greatly reduced counselling and family support services to as many vulnerable people as possible via phone, video and Facebook support groups. In the same way, it has also been able to continue its stop smoking service at a reduced level. Most of the staff have been furloughed but a few are able to continue working virtually due to external funding. Other lifeline services such as bra-fitting for women who’ve had breast cancer surgery, art therapy, support groups, the nurse-led helpline and driving service have been suspended.
Roisin Foster, chief executive, Cancer Focus NI, said: “Our hearts go out to people who are trying to cope with the anxiety of coronavirus on top of dealing with a cancer diagnosis and the impact of treatment”. The dedicated team at Cancer Focus NI are identifying raised levels of anxiety – about treatment being delayed, about the increased risk of coronavirus for people with weakened immune systems and about the loneliness and isolation of people facing terminal illness and bereavement without the usual networks of support.
“We are hearing of mothers travelling alone for treatment as their partners are at home with school-aged children and the family is otherwise socially isolating. This, combined with suspending screening programmes, means that we will be storing up considerable problems for the future – late diagnosis, more complex treatment, psychological impacts, impacts on families including bereavement – and all at a time when charities like ours are facing real concerns about our future.”
Mrs Foster added that “With cancer screening suspended and GP referrals for suspected cancer down 76%, we know that once this crisis is over there will be a wave of patients facing late diagnosis and more complex treatment going forward. The need for services like ours is greater than ever. We fully appreciate the impact of coronavirus is to the forefront of everyone’s mind. But sadly cancer has not disappeared. We would urge people to be all the more vigilant about the signs and symptoms of cancer and contact your GP if you have concerns.”
Kathy Farrell , a mum of three from Dunmurry, used two of the charity’s many services after she discovered she had breast cancer. She’s had eight operations including a double mastectomy, breast reconstruction and a hysterectomy. Her long-term health has been affected in other ways too – she has depression and anxiety along with fibromyalgia, nerve damage in her hands and feet and chronic fatigue. “Counselling and writing about my cancer journey with Cancer Focus NI have made a huge impact on my life. You realise you’re not isolated and by yourself and that there is somebody there who can support you,” she said. “I don’t think Cancer Focus NI realises the positive impact they have on people’s lives, it’s life-changing.”
To help Cancer Focus NI support local people affected by cancer in the future visit cancerfocusni.org