Friday 13 December 2019

How the humble lollipop saves lives

In 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the element radium – which was later used in radiotherapy.

The 1940s saw the dawn of chemotherapy which revolutionised the way tumours were treated. Cancer has been around for millennia, but over the past few centuries scientific developments such as these have given mankind an edge over the insidious disease. Every pioneering scientist has brought fresh hope to the long war on cancer. And now, the humble lollipop has joined the resistance.

Why the lollipop?

We’re used to thinking about lollipops in a sticky-fingered, carefree-slurping context. They are a treat to be devoured absentmindedly, licked and sucked into oblivion. But for sufferers of oesophageal cancer this simple enjoyment means something more. When the OCF (Oesophageal Cancer Fund) was established in 2001, they chose the lollipop as their symbol to highlight one of the early warning signs of this cancer – difficulty swallowing.

Ireland has one of the highest rates of oesophageal cancer in Europe with an estimated 450 new diagnoses every year. It is a cancer that affects the gullet (the tube connecting the throat to the stomach) and early symptoms can include difficulty swallowing, hoarseness and persistent indigestion .

The OCF was set up by a group of friends who had lost a loved one, Lucilla Hyland, to this particular cancer. Spurred on by loss, they committed themselves to educating people about the early symptoms, contributing to vital research and providing support to those with the disease – during and after treatment.

The OCF is a registered charity and all these efforts are only possible through continued donations. Lollipop Day (23rd – 24th February) is the OCF’s most important annual fundraising event. It is a charitable drive that will see hundreds of volunteers -young and old- take to the streets up and down the country to sell the pink OCF lollies, raise awareness and much-needed funds for vital research of this illness.

How OCF Contributes to Vital Research

Scientific innovation is crucial to better understanding and managing this cancer as it’s a particularly tricky one to treat.

As well as raising awareness of the illness and fulfilling its mission of targeting early detection, which offers patients the best chance of curative treatment, the OCF drums up funds for new research and technological advancements. So far, they have contributed almost €1.4 million in funding for clinical research in the main Clinical Academic Cancer Centres for upper Gastrointestinal cancers across Ireland.

This stream of funding has led to the creation of the National Barrett’s Registry that specifically targets prevention and early diagnosis of oesophageal cancer as well as the BioBank that operates in tandem with the National Barrett’s Registry; whereby tissue and blood samples from consented Barrett’s patients are collected, stored and used for vital patient-focussed research that helps better understand the factors that may lead to oesophageal cancer.


Given that the OCF was formed in the wake of a personal bereavement they have always stressed that the patient is at the heart of everything they do. The OCF also likes to offer support in the aftermath of diagnosis, stage and post-surgery. Oftentimes, when surgery is over and a patient has successfully come through their treatment and is starting to readjust to normal life, feelings of depression, isolation and sometimes guilt can creep in.

Not wanting to burden their friends or family with this maelstrom of post-operative emotion, many patients can feel quite alone. That’s where the OCF steps in. They host bi-annual Patient Support Meetings which give survivors a platform to share their story and gain solace from peers who are going through the same thing. These groups provide invaluable support to survivors, family and loved ones.

No two experiences are exactly the same of course, but the unpredictability of cancer is better weathered together. For Sheila Murphy, of Meath, this shared experience was hugely beneficial to her post-operative journey.

"The OCF’s Patient Support Meetings are great because we're all going through the same experience, even though every experience is individual to each person, we can take bits of everyone's experience and apply them to ourselves."

Sheila Murphy - Meath.jpg
Sheila Murphy. Picture Colm Mahady/Fennells.

For Billy Kent of Clare, having a Counsellor on-hand during meetings is a great support.

"After all the treatment is over, that's when I found it tough, because you don't want to be burdening yourself on those you love, so you can go to a stranger and get help, get everything out and they'll listen.

And that was it for me I think- an ear. So having a professional Counsellor here today at the OCF’s Patient Support Meeting- it’s been great for us all to have our thoughts and feelings acknowledged."

Billy Kent - Clare.jpg
Billy Kent. Picture Colm Mahady/Fennells.

Attending a Patient Support Meeting means that patients have the opportunity to hear the differing experiences of other survivors, explains Mary Quinlan of Tipperary.

"The OCF’s Patient Support Meeting is fantastic because you get to meet all the people who are, for example: 17 years survivors, 14 years survivors, or 10 years survivors. It's marvellous. And also, to hear that the problems I have eating, they're all having them. It's comforting."

Mary Quinlan - Tipperary .jpg
Mary Quinlan. Picture Colm Mahady/Fennells.

Recognising the Early Symptoms

Approximately 70% of patients have symptoms of oesophageal cancer three months before consulting with their GP. When it comes to this disease, early detection of symptoms is crucial- a fact the OCF is keen to point out with the Lollipop Day tagline ‘Don’t just donate, detect’.

So what are the warning signs to look out for? Most people get occasional indigestion or heartburn, but if it’s persistent and happens every time you eat it is a cause for concern. Similarly, if you’ve had a cough for a prolonged period of time or have developed a hoarseness in your voice, this can be an indication of something more serious. If you experience difficulty swallowing or feel like your food is catching or coming back up, you should also go to your doctor. Experienced in isolation, these symptoms don’t seem particularly ‘serious’ which is why many people miss the window for early treatment.

How Can You Help?

Every year, the OCF furthers its aims of raising awareness, contributing to research and supporting patients – and Lollipop Day is the fulcrum of this activity. This 23rd and 24th February, show your support by donating or becoming a volunteer. If you want to help beat cancer, put your money where your mouth is and buy a lolly.

To find out more and donate, visit

Sponsored by: AA

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