‘Research is our biggest weapon in the war against cancer’

Ena Barrett
Ena Barrett

Coffee mornings, dances, sponsored walks and every fund raiser in Inishowen and Donegal for the Irish Cancer Society is having a direct and positive effect on the fight against the disease.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and the society is asking everyone to ‘Paint it Pink’ this month to raise vital funds for lifesaving research and vital support services.

Community fund raiser for Donegal, Ena Barrett, spoke to the Journal this week and told how every euro donated from the peninsula is going towards their vision of a future without cancer.

While huge breakthroughs in the fight against breast cancer, the society says the disease is at a “tipping point” with more women - and men - surviving but more being diagnosed than ever before.

Two women die every day in Ireland due to breast cancer, which is two too many.

Ena, who lives in Newtowncunningham, is a breast cancer survivor and knows at first hand the importance of early detection, awareness, support and research into all cancers.

She sadly lost her brother to the disease over 30 years ago and tells how in that time, very few new drugs were being discovered.

She said: “Research really is our biggest weapon in the war against cancer. When my brother died of cancer, there were only really two new drugs discovered in the 80s and 90s. Now, there are new discoveries all the time and it’s wonderful. They’re making huge progress. Sometimes people can dismiss research and say the money should be invested in services. But, if we invest in research, it means a reduction in these types of cancers which, in turn, means better treatment and a reduced need for the services.”

Ena said monies raised from community fund raisers was aiding with this research and into the discovery of new drugs.

She spoke of the society’s collaborative research centre, Breast Predict, which has brought together Ireland’s leading names in breast cancer research to determine how best to treat patients and find new treatment strategies. The society is investing 7.5 million euro into this, at 2.5 million euro per year.

One of the society’s researchers - again aided by fundraising - has recently discovered how the drug Copanislib can prevent resistance of cancer cells to the existing breast cancer treatment drug Herceptin - improving success rates. Ireland will be the first country to do clinical trials.

Ena says: “This won’t just be massive all over Ireland but all over the world. So many women faced with a terminal diagnosis have been given hope. Ireland is really at the forefront of research and people in Donegal are contributing to that. Whether you have a coffee morning or walk or event - whether you raise 100 euro or 100 euro - your money is going towards research and it’s having real benefits.”

Ena says that as well as research, early detection and awareness are also crucial.

“I was lucky; I was detected early,” she says.

Ena went to her doctor as she had extreme fatigue and a prolonged cold.

She said: “I could explain away my tiredness as I was busy at work. I also had a prolonged cold but dismissed it. I did say to the doctor I had this wee lump but that wasn’t what I went to the doctor for. I did have to have a lymphectomy as it had spread to my lymph glands, chemotherapy and radiation but there was always a great outlook for me and that was because we got it early.”

Ena said increased awareness of early detection is crucial, adding that people shouldn’t worry about their concerns being dismissed.

“If you have any concerns or worries, no matter how small, go to your doctor. No doctor is going to tell you that you’re silly. It’s the sensible option and you’re giving yourself the best fighting chance,” she said.

Ena also urged people not to be afraid of the word: ‘Cancer.’

She said: “The society goes into schools to speak to children about cancer in a non-threatening, non-frightening manner. We want families to be able to talk about it and should cancer come to their door then they’re not terrified telling friends and family about it. We always talk about the sad stories but at Relay for Life we see survivors of all ages. This year, we had survivors from three-years-old to a 92-year-old woman from Inishowen. Seeing them all standing there in their t-shirts at the opening ceremony is a very powerful image and shows that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Ena, who formerly worked in a bank, got involved with the Irish Cancer Society as she wanted to “give something back.”

She is one of five community fund raisers who liaise with those organising events and is also a local point of contact for people who have been diagnosed with cancer.

She told how the Irish Cancer Society also offers a number of services including the Care to Drive programme (offering travel to and from hospital appointments) the Daffodil Centre in Letterkenny and a helpline number where those who are diagnosed can speak to a specialist in your type of cancer and obtain information on support. Family members can also get in contact, all on the helpline number 1800 200 700 on Monday to Thursday 9am - 6pm and Friday 9am to 5pm.

They also have a number of corporate partners, including Boots, which have pharmacists who can speak to you about your drugs and treatment and beauticians who can advise on skin care and any other areas of beauty and personal care.

Ena said that making a difference to men and women diagnosed with cancer and taking away some of their concerns and fears is one of the biggest roles of a survivor.

She said: “I wouldn’t wish cancer on my worst enemy. But if you’re lucky you come through it and sometimes, it changes you for the better. Of course, I wish I never would have had it, but it gives you a different perspective and makes you value your family and friends. You value your priorities and if someone needs help and support you’re there for them. Sometimes, you just need to listen to people and say that what they’re feeling is right and normal and you felt it too. If we, as survivors, can help people who are going through this journey at different stages and give hope, I think that’s the biggest role of a survivor.”

For October, a number of fundraising events are being organised, including the Centra Pink Walk, which will take place nationally on October 17th next.

There is also an event called ‘Donegal’s Breast Player’ which will take place in the Mount Errigal Hotel, Letterkenny on October 31st.

The event will see 20 men from a number of local soccer, GAA, hockey and rugby club’s compete for the title in what has been described as a crossover between the ‘Rose of Tralee’ and Miss Ireland. The men will parade along the catwalk in their pink outfits, in their club colours and in formal evening wear with a lot more in between, There will also be full audience participation and the men have a chance of winning 1000 euro for their club. If you’d like to get your club involved, you can contact Ena on 087 7381055.

Ena said how every fund raiser is making a difference, not just in monetary value.

She said: “If these events are only to heighten awareness and stress the importance of early detection then they’d be worth it.

“We as a community need to talk about cancer and not be afraid of it. With research, there is better outcomes and we hope that in the future, when you hear the word ‘Cancer’ it will be the same as hearing that you have any other illness which you are able to live your life with.

“The Irish Cancer Society’s motto is: ‘We won’t give up until cancer does. That’s a good motto for any cancer patient and their family. You don’t have to be alone. There are people there for you.

“In Ireland, we do have high incidences of cancer but as a country and community, we’re not afraid to fight back.”

See www.cancer.ie