Cancer strategy targets missed as Covid-19 disrupts services

Fewer than half prostate and pancreatic cancer patients awaiting surgery operated on within targeted schedule

Barely half of all urgent breast cancer patients were seen promptly last year as the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted services.

Some 56 per cent of breast cancer patients triaged as urgent were offered an appointment within 10 days of review last year, according to an analysis of the National Cancer Strategy. This is well short of the target of 95 per cent of urgent patients being seen in this time frame.

Two-thirds (67 per cent) of urgent prostate cancer patients were seen within the 10-day window, also well short of the target. Ninety per cent of lung cancer appointments were within the target.

Fewer than half of prostate and pancreatic cancer patients awaiting surgery were operated on within the target time; compared to 57 per cent for patients with lung cancer and 84 per cent for patients with breast cancer.


Some 77 per cent of radiotherapy patients were treated within the target of 15 days, against a target of 90 per cent.

The uptake of BreastCheck remains high at 71 per cent, but the 73 per cent uptake of CervicalScreen is behind the target of 80 per cent and BowelScreen recorded a 49 per cent uptake, well behind the target of 60 per cent.

There was progress in another key anticancer objective, reducing the proportion of smokers in the population. Between 2019 and 2021, this figure dropped from 17 per cent to 16 per cent, well short of the 5 per cent target in 2026.

The proportion of breast cancers identified early has actually fallen, from 80 per cent in 2013 to 79 per cent in 2017. Early detection of colorectal cancers increased by two percentage points to 45 per cent; early lung cancer detection rose three percentage points to 33 per cent.

Among the areas where improvements occurred were GP access to diagnostics and the widespread adoption of electronic referrals of cancer patients by GPs.

According to the document, Ireland ranks 23rd out of 24 countries for five-year survival of patients with ovarian cancer. The country ranks 16th for breast and cervical cancer.

Ireland’s highest performance is for cancer of the oesophagus, brain and lymphoma, for which it ranks fourth.

The analysis was published on Friday alongside an implementation plan for the National Cancer Strategy, which runs from 2017 to 2026.

Last year, €20 million was provided to improve cancer services under the strategy. New cancer treatments were provided for Irish patients for the first time, including Stereotactic Ablative Radiotherapy (SABR) and adult CAR-T cell therapy service at St James’s Hospital.

An additional 26 oncology nurses were appointed in hospitals and construction started on a €56 million radiation oncology centre in Galway.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times