Monday 27 January 2020

We're struggling to cope with cancer screening, warns doctor

Professor David Gallagher
Professor David Gallagher

Doctors are struggling to cope with a surge in demand for genetic tests from patients with cancer and healthy people with a family history of the disease.

Professor David Gallagher, a consultant in medical oncology and genetics at St James's Hospital in Dublin warned his clinic is now getting 7,800 referrals a year - around 150 a week - and this is leading to waiting lists.

He said his team expects to provide 4,000 test results this year - up from less than 500 in 2013 - but it cannot keep pace with demand.

The patients include those who have cancer and want to find out if they have a genetic mutation which would make them suitable for certain drug treatments.

Others have a family history of particular cancers and want to know if they have inherited versions of the genes which could leave them at increased risk of developing the illness later on.

A healthy patient, who is referred today, will be on a waiting list until May, said Prof Gallagher.


"A lot of the testing is urgent. We keep slots for urgent cases each week. If the testing will change the treatment of a cancer patient, we will get them in," he said.

However, it means that this pushes out the time faced by patients who need testing to show if they have a mutated gene which can increase their chance of getting cancer in future.

A positive result means the person with the inherited faulty versions of genes can take steps to manage their risk of developing cancer.

BRCA1 and BRCA2 - which actress Angelina Jolie inherited - are two of the best-known examples of genes that raise a woman's risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer.

Prof Gallagher said his service is "hugely under-staffed" and there is an urgent need of more consultant cancer geneticists and counsellors.

A new cancer geneticist will join the team from New York next year and he said there is also a need to develop our own molecular genetics lab.

Currently, samples are sent abroad for testing which adds to the delay.

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