Tuesday 21 January 2020

Just Ask Your Doctor: How one question could change the life of someone with cancer

Pictured is patient Advocate Eddie Mac Eoin from Bandon, Cork, enjoying life with his two grandchildren James Noonan (1) and Laoise McAdam (2) in Farmleigh Co Dublin.
Pictured is patient Advocate Eddie Mac Eoin from Bandon, Cork, enjoying life with his two grandchildren James Noonan (1) and Laoise McAdam (2) in Farmleigh Co Dublin.

Rachael Taylor Fawsitt

Since its establishment in 1996, more than 15,000 patients have participated in over 350 cancer trials, through Cancer Trials Ireland. These trials seek out new ways to prevent, detect and treat cancer, making them a vital tool against cancer both now and for future generations.

However, with less than 9% of patients with cancer asking about participating in a trial, the ‘Just Ask Your Doctor’ campaign has been launched to spread the word; trials are available in Ireland and they can make an enormous difference. Patients are being encouraged to talk to their doctor and ask if there is an appropriate trial they can join that will increase their treatment options.

A common misconception is that cancer trials are a last resort option. A recent survey published by Cancer Trials Ireland shows that 22% of people surveyed believe that cancer trials were only used when standard treatment had not worked.

According to Dr Catherine Kelly, Consultant Oncologist at the Mater Misericordia University Hospital, this is far from the case “Trials offer hope to all patients with cancer, not just those for whom standard treatment has not been successful”.

Dr Kelly also makes the point that “Cancer trials test new and potentially more effective ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer”.

Three Irish patients who know first-hand the positive effects of becoming part of a cancer trial are Patrick, Ruth and Emma. Three individuals, with one huge thing in common; they all asked their doctor.


Patrick was 48 and in the middle of training for several marathons, when he decided to visit his GP for a check-up. He was quickly diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia after his white cell count showed up as 100.

Unfortunately, Patrick was one of the 4% of those who do not respond to chemotherapy, which led him, with the advice of his doctor, to the idea of a clinical trial.

Patrick speaks of the trials as being a very “personal process”, crediting the staff on the trial for always asking about his family and never making him feel like he was just one element of a larger  process.

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From left, Evelyn O’Rourke, member of the board of Cancer Trials Ireland, Prof Bryan Hennessy, clinical lead, Cancer Trials Ireland, Consultant Medical Oncologist at Beaumont Hospital, Ashley Bazin, team leader, cancer trials research unit, Tallaght Hospital, Dr Linda Coate, vice clinical lead, Cancer Trials Ireland and Consultant Medical Oncologist, University Hospital Limerick with Patient Advocates Patrick Kivlehan, Johnstown, Kildare and Emma Corcoran, Lusk, north County Dublin. Photograph: Andres Poveda

Patrick is now in full remission and has returned to work, he even fits in the occasional round of golf.

“Treatment hasn’t enhanced my game” he laughs, “but it has increased my quality of life.”

The success of the trial that Patrick was part of has led to the treatment tested during the trial now being available to many cancer patients as a second line treatment.


Ruth, an avid painter and mother, had metastasized breast cancer. She has been on three different drug trials and praises them for giving her a new lease on life.

“I’m better than I was five years ago” she explains.  “I’m healthier than I was five years ago”.

Ruth says she was extremely impressed with the amount of expertise that goes into each cancer trial and says she has received “unbelievable care on the trails”.

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Ruth Larkin

Today, Ruth is on a new immunotherapy drug and says she is feeling great. She had the energy to return to painting, and is entering her art work into a large UK competition this year.

Ruth says if she could offer advice to other cancer patients about cancer trials, she would say “Don’t be foolish, ask your oncologist about it”.


At 40, Emma found a lump on her left breast. Within 10 days she her a diagnosis and a partial mastectomy, which was followed by five months of chemotherapy and 20 sessions of radiotherapy.

After reading an article about drug trials, she spoke to her doctor and was delighted to find out that she was eligible.

Her only question, she says, was whether she would lose her hair. Having just grown back after her previous treatment, she was afraid of losing it again.

Thankfully, this was not the case. One year into the trial, Emma says her quality of life is great. She is kept busy every day with her three children, and enjoys getting stuck into the morning routine with them.

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From left patient advocates Loreto Gregory, Ruth Larkin, Patrick Kivlehan, Emma Corcoran and Eddie Mac Eoin.

Emma has these words to offer other cancer patients, “Don’t be afraid. You’re already being so brave, going through what you have gone through. You just need to be a little bit braver now” she urges “and ask one more question”.

Cancer Trials Ireland’s Just Ask Your Doctor! campaign has been part-funded by unrestricted grants from the pharmaceutical companies MSD, Pfizer, AbbVie, Novartis and Roche.

For further information on cancer trials in Ireland visit cancertrials.ie or follow the conversation on Twitter @cancertrials_ie

Sponsored by: Cancer Trials Ireland

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