The long and winding road to Belfast

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“I’ll have to stay up,” Rosaleen Helferty said. “I don’t have any body who can take me up and down every day.

“It’s a worry. My son is due to sit his A Levels and I’m dreading having to leave him.

“I’ll worry about him a lot. But I don’t have a choice. I’ll have to stay up.”

Rosaleen Helferty admitted she was feeling particularly sick and tired. She had just undergone her fourth round of Chemo. “Each one is worse than the last. I don’t think I recovered from the last round before I had this one. I feel just so tired and I can do nothing.

“I couldn’t drive around the town, let alone up to Belfast every day.”

Rosaleen is just one of the many Derry cancer patients who are facing treatment in Belfast for their condition. Diagnosed with breast cancer last year Rosaleen has undergone a radical mastectomy before starting Chemo. She has two more rounds of Chemo left, which she will receive in Derry’s Sperrin Room at Altnagelvin Hospital before her treatment moves to the City Hospital in Belfast for radiotherapy.

She admits she is nervous. “They know me in Altnagelvin. They are brilliant there.

“They make a point of knowing you, of making sure you are okay. You have been seeing the same nurses for your treatment - from diagnosis through your chemo and then that is taken away from you and go somewhere where you don’t know anyone.

“And the thought of leaving my family... I don’t like that. But I don’t have any choice.”

Other members of the Pink Ladies had similar fears when they were going through their treatment. Some, like Rosaleen, had no choice but to stay up in Belfast during their treatment.

“The nurses there were great,”Bridie McIntyre, who stayed in Belvoir Park during her treatment, said. “And I made friends. You had to.

“You had to get to know the people on your ward. But you felt so far from home - and so far from your family.

“It was a scary time and you wanted the comfort of your loved ones around you. To be there without them, that was tough.”

Michelle McLaren was only 25 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

A single parent with two young children aged just two and three, she found juggling family life with her need to be in Belfast daily for treatment particularly tough.

“People had turned their lives upside down when I was going through surgery and chemotherapy to help me look after the wains,” she said. “But people had to keep their jobs, they had to go back to work and when it came to it I had no choice but to travel every day to Belfast for treatment.

“The first time I went, we drove all the way there and I was out of treatment in five minutes.

“My friend who was with me hadn’t even had time to finish his coffee and we were back on the road back to Derry.

“And yet the whole day was disrupted. We had our routine, leave at 10.30. Get the treatment at 12.15 and be back in Derry for 3.30.

“I was exhausted - I didn’t know how I did it. Only looking back do I see how tough it was.

“I suppose I did it because I had no choice but, God, when I think about how much easier it would be to just go over to Altnagelvin, get your treatment and be home again straight after.

“It would have made such a big difference.”

On occasions Michelle was forced to bring her two young children with her on the arduous journey. On other occasions she had to drive herself - even though she was seriously unwell and suffering from the side effects of her treatment.

“The thing with cancer,” Bridie said, “even when you are feeling well you are still very unwell. It doesn’t just go away.”

The Pink Ladies say they know of women who have been forced to get the bus to and from Belfast while friends of theirs from just over the border have been forced to travel as far as Dublin to receive their treatment.

“There are so many practical issues,” Geraldine McGurk added. “You have to think that there is a very real financial implication in having to travel up and down every day.

“The cost of the bus, or petrol is fierce - not to mention having to feed yourself while you are there. And if you have someone with you, you have to look after them too.

“In this day and age who can afford that? And who wants to worry about it when they are fighting cancer?

“You have enough to worry about. Chances are you won’t be able to work.

“The benefits you get aren’t enough to cope with that kind of financial burden.”

Michelle, who is still taking Tamoxifen to keep her cancer from returning, said a very real issue exists with regards to patients who would receive radiotherapy for palliative care.

“Patients receiving palliative care are dying. Many are turning down this treatment, which could give them more time, because it takes them away from their families. I know one man who went for one session and then decided it was just too much.

“When you are dying you don’t want to spend your last days travelling up and down to Belfast, or sitting in waiting rooms in a strange hospital or lying in a strange ward away from your loved ones.

“To think that people here who could have the quality of their last days improved, or have more time, are being denied that because of the travel implications is simply shocking.”

All the Pink Ladies admit they have very real concerns about the current level of service provision in Belfast - which is already close to be over subscribed.

“What happens then?” Deirdre Brown, who has just been discharged from treatment, said. “Does it become a postcode lottery? Do they decided who is sick enough for treatment? Or who is too sick?

“Could the service be withdrawn from those who need palliative care?

“These are very real worries.”

The ladies agreed there seems to be no option to open and properly fund the centre in Derry - something they have been campaigning for for a number of years.

“It’s a necessity.

“The number of people needing radiotherapy is growing and Belfast simply cannot cope with the demand.

“What other option do they have but to run the centre in Derry?”