GPs have an important role to play in cancer diagnosis and treatment. Many cancers have few or subtle symptoms and we should always be on the alert for a change in a person's well-being. A good GP won't just treat you for your cold or flu, they will be concerned about your general health and well-being. They should ask about your general health and explore any change or new symptoms you may have. They should encourage you to partake in screening programmes such as cervical, bowel and Breastcheck. They should explore your family history to identify any risks you may have.
They can advise you about lifestyle habits that may increase your risk of certain cancers. GPs are not just there to treat disease, they play an important role in keeping you well. Think of your GP as one of the first lines of defence.
When symptoms occur GPs can facilitate referral onto the appropriate hospital clinic. There are now clear referral pathways for suspected cancer cases. Rapid access clinics exist for suspected cases of breast, lung, prostate and skin cancer.
More informally, a GP can pick up the phone and speak directly to a member of the hospital team if they are concerned about a particular patient. In my experience hospital consultants have been very facilitating of requests to see patients with concerning symptoms.
Once cancer is diagnosed, the majority of medical care takes place in the hospital. We are very lucky in Ireland in that we have excellent special oncology care centres where patients receive world-class care from multidisciplinary teams. Cancer treatments are evolving rapidly and what is referred to as 'personalised cancer care' is becoming more and more common.
We know that there isn't necessarily a one size fits all treatment for any individual or cancer case. The hospital however remains a daunting place and, in my experience, patients prefer to be home as much as possible. I have found that a GP simply facilitating a blood test or liaising with the hospital team to update prescriptions or care makes a big difference to the quality of life for those undergoing cancer treatment.
The GP's biggest role in cancer care often starts when hospital treatment ends. More and more people are surviving cancer. They have great support through the treatment process but the shell shock they feel after treatment ends can often leave them vulnerable and alone. The wave of adrenaline that exists through the treatment process is often replaced by the reality of the enemy they faced hitting in the months after treatment ends. They worry that any change in physical well-being means the cancer is back.
Cancer can be a life-changing experience and the person emerging is often different to the one who entered the treatment process. Patients need to adjust often to physical and emotional changes. A new outlook on life may herald changes in relationships, jobs and aspirations. The weeks and days prior to hospital check ups often bring their own extra stress.
GPs are there to provide emotional support and reassurance. They can review and assess any physical symptoms and help ensure that quality of life returns for the four out of five people who will be alive 10 years after their cancer diagnosis.
* Dr Nina Byrnes is Principal GP at Generation Health Medical clinics in Castleknock D15 (01 8235367) and Glenageary SC, Glenageary Co Dublin (01 2461157). She is glad to welcome new patients at both clinics.
Health & Living