Saturday 15 June 2019

This is how Lollipop Day helps to save lives across Ireland every year

Oesophageal Cancer Fund patron Padraig Harrington with some campaign lollipops
Oesophageal Cancer Fund patron Padraig Harrington with some campaign lollipops

Oesophageal cancer affects up to 450 Irish people every year but it’s hoped that vital new research can improve our understanding of its causes and increase the chances of early detection.

Lollipop Day was started by the Oesophageal Cancer Fund (OCF) to create awareness around oesophageal cancer and to raise much-needed funds for research into the disease. Lollipop Day takes place on March 1 and 2 this year and the OCF are encouraging people to donate or to get involved in their local area.

They are also looking to educate the public on the early signs of oesophageal cancer and the less-discussed Barrett’s oesophagus.

Barrett’s oesophagus is an inflammatory disease of the oesophagus that’s most commonly found in people living with obesity, in smokers and in people with acute acid reflux and difficulty swallowing, with some sufferers going on to develop the early stages of oesophageal cancer.

A registry of those suffering with Barrett’s oesophagus across Ireland was set up 10 years ago as a direct result of funds raised on Lollipop Day by the OCF.

The OCF supported the foundation of the registry 10 years ago across six hospitals – St. James’s Hospital, Beaumont Hospital, the Mater, St. Vincent’s Hospital, the Mercy Hospital in Cork and University Hospital Galway. Through initiatives like Lollipop Day, the OCF is funding the collection of data on Barrett’s patients in these hospitals.

The hope is that this research can help to prevent deaths from oesophageal cancer by improving our understanding of the disease.

Scientists and medical professionals such as Professor Jacintha O’Sullivan, Professor in Translational Oncology at Trinity College Dublin, are aiming to find out how rates of Barrett’s oesophagus and oesophageal cancer are developing, if changes are being detected early enough and if patients are being better managed.

“It also helps us to find out if our rates of detection are increasing or decreasing,” Professor O’Sullivan tells Independent.ie.

“All this information is uploaded on to a national registry – Barrett’s Registry - and we’re able to run detailed audits on the status of our Barrett’s oesophagus patients in Ireland.

“As a result, we’re detecting changes in the oesophagus much quicker.

“Patients on the registry are seen at least every two years, and if there are any changes in the oesophagus they’re seen even more frequently.”

While it is impossible to say whether someone with Barrett’s oesophagus will go on to develop cancer, Professor O’Sullivan says that innovations are taking place all the time to detect bio-markers that she hopes will lead to even quicker intervention.

“There’s no marker to say if people will progress to cancer or not, but with the BioBank we collect blood and tissue samples. We’re trying to find markers in both to see which patients will progress to cancer, and which patients won’t,” she states.

“We’re very interested in how the cells are damaged in the oesophagus, and how that will drive those changes that lead to cancer. We’re looking for better bio-markers to distinguish those that will progress and won’t progress. This is all done following consultation with the patient, with their consent and fully in line with GDPR regulations.”

Professor O’Sullivan details those persistent symptoms to look out for if you think you should visit your GP, and ultimately be tested for Barrett’s oesophagus.

“The classical symptoms are reflux, difficulty swallowing. Barrett’s oesophagus is very common. If you have severe acid reflux it may be important to see if patients should be referred for an endoscopy to detect the earliest stages of Barrett’s oesophagus.”

If you’re overweight or a smoker and you’re suffering from persistent heartburn and/or difficulty swallowing, it’s important to get checked out.

“Irish rates of oesophageal cancer are among the highest in Europe, with up to 450 new cases per year (expected to rise to 800 by 2040), so if they’re on the registry the aim is to bring that number down. Barrett’s Registry makes all the difference in terms of early detection. If oesophageal cancer is detected early, there are excellent cure rates.

“The registry helps us also to work on preventative strategies, to stop it getting to the point where cancer starts.”

“To give patients hope, if you’re diagnosed with late-stage Barrett’s, there is new radiofrequency ablation treatment that can remove the areas of Barrett’s without the need for major invasive surgery. This is vital for those patients that we pick up during early surveillance. It’s revolutionised the care of patients who are fortunate to see their cancer diagnosed at the earliest stage.”

Professor O’Sullivan insists that funding from the OCF has been crucial in saving lives across Ireland.

“Without funding from the OCF, we would not have been able to set up Barrett’s Registry 10 years ago. In that time we have received over €1.4m to set up the registry and the BioBank, a really important step in understanding Barrett’s oesophagus and early stage oesophageal cancer.

“Without that funding we could not have connected those six Irish hospitals together, while we’ve also been able to secure extra funding for the BioBank to enable translational research, with the hope that the patients can benefit in the future from our scientific discoveries. This would not have been possible without the OCF and it’s the patients who will benefit from this in the end.”

For more information, check out the Lollipop Day website.

Sponsored by: ESB

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