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OG Cancer NI Welcomes Minister’s Cancer Plan

Charity warns that patients need referrals dealt with without further delays

OG Cancer NI, the charity that supports those with oesophageal and gastric cancers has today welcomed Health Minister, Robin Swann’s, three-year Cancer Recovery Plan to rebuild Northern Ireland’s cancer services.

Chair of OG Cancer NI, Helen Setterfield, said the plan, together with £30m to tackle all waiting lists, was urgently needed.

“Even before the pandemic it was clear that cancer waiting times were too long,” she said. “Each year there are 400 people diagnosed with oesophageal or gastric cancers, and when we learn that all cancer targets in the first quarter of 2021 were missed it is a major concern.
“We urge the Minister to make sure that, as the plan is rolled out, that he and his team speak to specialists across all cancer fields to hear what can be done to improve the service, adopt new diagnostic tools, and reduce waiting times.”

Mrs Setterfield, herself a survivor of cancer, also warned that due to the pandemic, there has been a drop in the number being diagnosed, but people should not hesitate to contact their GP if they experience symptoms.

At present the only diagnostic test for oesophageal and gastric cancers is an invasive scope examination.

The OG Cancer chair welcomed the Minister’s commitment in the three-year plan to investigate a new diagnostic tool called a Cytosponge. This is a procedure that can be carried out in a health centre or at a GP surgery. It involves swallowing a tablet on a string which contains a sponge that will collect cells for testing.

“We are absolutely delighted that the Health Minister is aware of this trial and hopefully, it will be available in Northern Ireland in the very near future as part of the recovery plan,” she said. “It has finished clinical trials and during the pandemic it was used in England and it was very successful. We are hoping that with the inclusion in the cancer recovery plan for Northern Ireland it will soon be available here.”

People diagnosed early have much better outcomes, making the OG Cancer awareness message and new tests such as the Cytosponge vital.

“If you look at the statistics for oesophageal and gastric cancer, they are really very poor and quite frightening,” Mrs Setterfield explained. “People who are diagnosed at an early stage have a good chance of surviving 5 years or more. If you are diagnosed at a late stage such as stage 4, you only have a 3.4% chance of survival.

“What we are determined to do is to get this message out so that people know if you have difficulty swallowing, that’s not right. If you have heartburn, persistent heartburn, continuous heartburn, that’s not right. Please, if you do suffer from any of these symptoms, get them checked out. It could save your life.”

OG Cancer NI has funded researcher at Queen’s University which will transform the care of oesophago-gastric patients. The charity has also funded an audit by the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry.

“Recently the registry completed an audit for oesophageal cancer, but there was no audit completed for gastric cancer, so we donated the money to allow this to happen,” explained Mrs Setterfield. “The audit will inform all the medics of the successes in what they do, identify weaknesses and thus enable improvements in the OG cancer patient pathway.”

OG Cancer NI provides support and services to those diagnosed with oesophageal or gastric cancer, and works to increase awareness and promote research. All members are volunteers mostly ex-patients or former carers. Pre covid-19 they provided an information stand at the City Hospital to coincide with the oesophago-gastric clinic, this will resume as soon as possible in the wake of the pandemic. Members work closely with the clinical team. Regular meetings have been held online during lockdowns, and fundraising will continue.

For further information go to, follow #OGCancerNI, call 07568 157450 or make an appointment to see your local GP today.

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Mental Health Champion of Northern Ireland Appointed

1. Siobhan O’Neill is a Professor of Mental Health Sciences at Ulster University, and the Mental Health Champion for Northern Ireland. Her research programmes focus on trauma, mental illness and suicidal behaviour in Northern Ireland, and the transgenerational transmission of trauma.

Following a recent external recruitment process, Health Minister Robin Swann has appointed Professor Siobhan O’Neill as the Mental Health Champion for Northern Ireland.

Professor O’Neill is the current Interim Mental Health Champion and Professor of Mental Health Sciences at Ulster University. She is one of Northern Ireland’s leading experts in the field of mental health, known for her active and passionate involvement in suicide prevention. 

Making the announcement Minister Swann said: “The mental health and wellbeing of our population is a priority which has been further highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Appointing a Mental Health Champion is another key step to ensuring those suffering from mental ill health will have access to the services they need, when they need them.  I am delighted that Professor O’Neill has agreed to continue her crucial work that she started as Interim Mental Health Champion.”

During her time as Interim Mental Health Champion, Professor O’Neill has been an advocate for mental health at both public and governmental levels.  She led a mental health and wellness campaign throughout the winter pandemic restrictions and has been an advisor to the Department of Health and Executive colleagues on the mental health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Minister continued: “I recently announced a new 10-year Mental Health Strategy setting out the future strategic direction of mental health services in Northern Ireland.  I want to break down barriers and put individuals and their needs at the centre of what we do.  The appointment of a long term Mental Health Champion underpins the provision of a voice for the most vulnerable in our society and across government now and in the future.”

Professor O’Neill said: “I am delighted to continue as the Mental Health Champion for Northern Ireland, so that the voices of those who struggle with their mental health are heard, and that their voices influence policy and practice to ensure that good mental health and wellbeing is a priority across Government Departments. 

“The 10-year Mental Health Strategy is a positive step in improving mental health services and demonstrates why mental health must be a key priority for Northern Ireland. I look forward to continuing my work with Minister Swann, the Executive, those with lived experience of mental ill health and those who provide services on the ground, to ensure that the actions laid out in the strategy are delivered to help Northern Ireland to flourish as we recover from the current pandemic and into the future.”

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Grants for Groups Supporting Carers Announced

Health Minister Robin Swann has announced the allocation of the first tranche of grants to organisations providing vital support for carers. 

Almost £600,000 of the £4.4m Support for Carers Fund has been awarded to groups across Northern Ireland. It’s part of a £24m package of funding made available in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to support carers, cancer charities and mental health organisations.

Following assessment, 16 applications have been successful in securing funding which will see a total allocation of £594,921 from this round of funding. The activities being funded include provision of practical support, wellbeing events, respite, advocacy support and work to address isolation and loneliness. Projects cover both adult and young carers.

The Health Minister said: “I want to pay tribute to the many thousands of people in Northern Ireland who help to look after a family member or friend without financial reward.  Put simply, the health service could not cope without them, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic when their role was absolutely vital.

“When I launched the Support for Carers Fund earlier this year my focus was to support projects delivering on the ground to make a real difference to individual carers. I have therefore been pleased to hear of some of the practical supports that the Fund will allow through this first set of awards.

“The awards that have been confirmed are only the first tranche of the overall funding pot of more than £4m. This represents a very significant financial investment and I look forward to seeing how it brings about a sustained improvement in the lives and experiences of individual carers in the coming months and years.”

The Fund is being administered and managed by the Community Foundation NI on behalf of the Department and aims to provide grant funding to organisations with charitable status that can deliver outcomes to improve the lives and experiences of carers.

Community Foundation Chief Executive, Roisin Woods said: “The Foundation is thrilled to be granting these monies to projects helping in the care sector.  Like the Cancer Charities Support Fund, there was a massive response to the funding, which will provide almost over £600,000 to organisations supporting care groups locally.  The funds will be available for three years, making an impact over a longer period of time, which we know will create a meaningful difference in the lives of many. A second round of grants to support carers will open in the New Year.

“We realise some projects will be disappointed today, and we would encourage them to bid if they can for the new round of funding and to really think about how they undertake their applications to ensure they meet the criteria for funding.”

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