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Campaigners left reeling as cancer-care pledges unravel

A CANCER campaign group has been left reeling after a week in which the pre-election promises of two parties unravelled -- before the election has even taken place.

By the weekend, Fine Gael and Labour had been forced into damage-limitation mode after senior party figures refused to issue any reassurance regarding the controversial restoration of breast cancer services at Sligo General Hospital.

"It was like being stuck on a merry-go-round, only there was nothing merry about it. People were left crying with frustration," summed up Deirdre O'Sullivan, a member of the Save Our Cancer Services group (SOCS).

Breast cancer services at Sligo General Hospital were transferred to one of eight centres of excellence at Galway University Hospital (GUH) 17 months ago, amid huge opposition.

Since then thousands of women in the north-west who require mammograms, surgery, follow-up treatment and radiotherapy, have been forced to make round trips of up to 400km to access a service that was once provided on their doorstep.

The group opted not to run an election candidate in the Sligo/North Leitrim constituency after receiving watertight pre-election commitments from both Labour and Fine Gael that the service at Sligo General Hospital would be restored.

But last week, Labour Party deputy leader Joan Burton three times evaded a direct answer to the question of whether Labour would restore the service on the local station Ocean FM.

The reaction was one of fury and the next day, senior party figure, Ruairi Quinn, canvassing with local candidate Susan O'Keeffe, repeated the Labour party pledge that Sligo General Hospital would be designated a ninth centre of excellence in the national cancer strategy.

On the same radio programme on Wednesday, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny would only say that his party would continue services that remained "in situ" at Sligo General.

This seemed to fly in the face of commitments by the party, whose local election candidates, John Perry and Tony McLoughlin, have been to the forefront of the SOCS campaign.

John Perry later issued a statement stating that his party would reinstate breast cancer services at the hospital, which would become a satellite of GUH.

Speaking yesterday, Deirdre O'Sullivan said that the group, was now seeking to have the commitments "copper-fastened in the first programme for government".

Campaigners are insisting that patients are suffering additional pain from prolonged travel times. Promises of a hardship fund, a specially adapted bus and the continuation of mammograms at Sligo General Hospital have failed to materialise.

Patients from Sligo are routinely given 9am appointments, meaning they have to leave their homes as early as 4am, or travel the night before.


Patients who develop complications after surgery often have to return to GUH on their arrival home because they cannot receive follow-up treatment at Sligo General Hospital.

Tim Hanrahan, the former breast surgeon, who is still based at Sligo General Hospital, said he had seen no evidence to suggest that patients were receiving an improved service.

"Inconvenience certainly exists. I would have some concerns that possible delays could possibly impinge on outcomes," he said.

A spokesperson for HSE West said that the GUH symptomatic breast unit performed above the targets set by the Health Information and Quality Authority.

The spokesperson added that efforts to recruit mammographers had so far been unsuccessful.

She said that a new bus was currently being commissioned through the Friends of Sligo General Hospital, and was due for delivery this year.

Irish Independent