• 08 July 2019
  • 6 min read

Chemotherapy unavailable for cancer patients on bank holidays

  • Nurses.co.uk News
    Editorial and news team

Sessions of chemotherapy have been cancelled for cancer patients as Northern Ireland’s main cancer centre doesn’t operate on bank holidays.

According to the BBC, around 780 patients at the Belfast Cancer Centre had their treatments cancelled in April and May.

Some of the patients had appointments rescheduled, others weren’t so lucky.

The Belfast Health and Social Care Trust said that it tried to rearrange appointments for patients but it was not always possible, says the BBC.

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Based in Belfast City Hospital, the cancer centre prioritises rescheduling patients who have cancer that has not spread (primary cancer).

Therefore, patients with secondary cancer - cancer that has spread - don’t get their appointments rescheduled and miss them altogether.

Approximately 400 patients attend the centre to receive chemotherapy every week

The trust said it was aware of the “anxiety and inequity” felt by patients affected by bank holiday closures.

304 patients will be affected by cancellations in July and August.

Members of staff in Northern Ireland are contractually given leave on bank holidays, which affects the treatment of all chemotherapy patients in NI.

According to the BBC, for the system to be operating at full capacity, laboratory and pharmacy staff would also be required to work.

The BBC spoke with patient Sinead Joyce, 48, who has terminal cancer. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009.

Ms Joyce says she was not given a fair chance as a patient “hit with bank holidays.”

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Patients are given an allocated day to receive treatment - Ms Joyce’s set day is Monday on a weekly basis.

This meant that her sessions on bank holiday Mondays were cancelled.

She told the BBC that she ‘pleaded with staff’ to have her appointment rescheduled.

“I didn’t want to miss out,” she said.

“I was worried and imagining that the cells were growing and spreading and I was not getting my medicine into me.

“I don’t know if it made a difference, but I do wonder.”

Sessions missed that ‘offered a final chance to extend life”

According to the BBC, Ms Joyce was anxious about missing sessions during a chemotherapy trial starting in March, which ‘offered her a final chance to extend her life.’

The trial was to be extended after the initial 12 week period if it had a positive effect. Ms Joyce was devastated when she realised she would miss 3 of the 12 treatments due to St Patrick’s Day, Easter Monday and May Day.

Treatment was stopped when scans revealed her tumours had grown. “Every bank holiday I asked to be rescheduled but was told no. Physically, they said there was nowhere they could put me.

“There was no pharmacy and there were no nurses - it was not possible.

“They said there was nothing to suggest that missing a treatment makes a difference.”

Ms Joyce is said to have been shocked that other patients in a similar position to her who has secondary cancer, were not given the same opportunities as patients who had cancer which was confined to one area.

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The Belfast Trust said it tried to reschedule appointments for some patients, but due to not having enough ‘capacity’, it wasn’t always possible.

4 formal complaints have been received by the trust, however, it is understood that patients have also complained informally.

According to the BBC, a spokesperson said the trust had attempted to schedule chemotherapy for patients with primary cancer - where a cure was “potentially achievable” - within the same week as their missed session or the following week.

The trust says that “some clinical evidence” that supported delivering “the planned dose of chemotherapy on schedule.''

However, they’ve also said that rescheduling was based on capacity and therefore delays and missed appointments happen to all patients “across the spectrum of diseases and treatment intentions”.

The spokesperson for the trust also said that patients with secondary cancer were not rescheduled to receive treatment within the same week because of “less evidence”.

What about other cancer service providers in the UK?

The rules regarding bank holiday differ elsewhere in the UK.

Scotland only treats Christmas Day and New Year’s Day as bank holidays for chemotherapy services in Scotland.

In Wales, two of the three regional cancer service providers open every bank holiday apart from Christmas Day.

Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, the third cancer service provider in Wales, doesn’t open on any bank holiday but accommodates patients in the days leading up to, or immediately following, a bank holiday to ‘minimise the impact on treatment’.

The Belfast Trust said it “recognised that patients would prefer to receive planned chemotherapy” on bank holidays but that this would require “substantive service investment”.

The spokesperson added: “There are significant capacity challenges which the Northern Ireland Cancer Centre faces in treating all our patients in a timely manner and we very much regret that some patients experience a deferred treatment which is not what we would wish to happen.

“We continue to do everything we can to minimise waiting times for patients and to explore how we can improve the situation for patients whose treatment falls on a public holiday.”