Evelyn O’Rourke investigates cancer care for women in Ireland – TG4

Evelyn O’Rourke: Ailse & Ise is scheduled for broadcast on TG4 at 9.30pm on Wednesday, 12th May 2021.

When Evelyn O’Rourke was on maternity leave with her first child she discovered that she was pregnant for the second time. Within a week of this wonderful news her world came crashing down around her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now ten years on with the CervicalCheck controversy still unresolved, Evelyn investigates what sort of experience women who are diagnosed with cancer have today.

Evelyn O’Rourke- credit Bryan Brophy 1Image photography

In this feature length authored documentary, broadcaster Evelyn O’Rourke meets women, their families, doctors, and service providers to investigate the medical, emotional, psychological, and sociological elements that women with cancer experience and to explore how we can deliver the kind of effective and humane service every Irish woman experiencing cancer deserves.

In 2014 Evelyn published a memoir ‘Dear Ross’ charting her journey and she has worked as an advocate for Cancer Trials Ireland since her own illness. Now with the hindsight of her own personal milestone of ten years, Evelyn is on a mission to find out what has changed in that time around treatment, support, trials, screening, and outcomes. 10,500 Irish women receive the devastating news of a cancer diagnosis every year and that number is rising. We are also living with the fallout of the cervical cancer scandal which has repeatedly dominated the headlines and undermined trust. Covid has wreaked havoc on our health system and cancer care has inevitably been badly hit.

Evelyn learns of other women’s experiences and how it impacts on their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Her journey takes her around the country into the homes of these women as they honestly share their stories of suffering, loss, endurance and love with raw emotion – and at times humour.  Under the shadow of Covid, she consults with Professor Janice Walshe in St Vincent’s University Hospital to hear about advances in cancer care and asks director Dr Nóirín Russell about rebuilding trust in the CervicalCheck programme. The Irish Cancer Society paint a bleak picture of a long-term fallout due to the pandemic and Cancer Trials Ireland urge us to invest in trials.

Rachel Morrogh of the Irish Cancer Society explains to Evelyn how the incidence of cancer in our population is rising but also how more and more of us are surviving cancer. The biggest threat to cancer care today, she believes, is the impact Covid is having on the service.

In Cork, widower and 221+ activist Stephen Teap explains how his wife Irene died of cervical cancer and how he was catapulted into one of the biggest health scandals this country has known. Alongside Vicky Phelan he has campaigned tirelessly for the women effected by the scandal.

The psychological and emotional impact of cancer on a woman is significant and Evelyn meets psychotherapist Stella O’Malley to explore the effect of a cancer experience and they discuss how best to support these women.

In Sligo, Vanessa Job is in treatment for bowel cancer. This is her second time having treatment for cancer and she talks about how essential counselling and support is for all the family. She has discovered a love of painting and finds her art very therapeutic. Evelyn visits her at various points in her treatment and finds out what the challenges are for Vanessa and her family.

Evelyn seeks out midwife Ruth O’Connor who is taking part in an international trial for breast cancer. Her medical background meant that she was actively looking for a trial and was fortunate to be eligible for one locally in Dublin. They talk about the hope that trials bring and how essential they are.

Evelyn’s own doctor and renowned consultant Professor Janice Walshe tells Evelyn about the massive improvements in how we can treat some breast cancers in the last ten years. She explains how treatment with chemo can now sometimes be avoided altogether which is a game changer.

To discuss the physical side-effects cancer treatment has on women, Evelyn meets Belfast native and poet Réaltan Ní Leannáin who had breast cancer at the same time as Evelyn. They discuss they challenges of losing your hair and Réaltan reads Evelyn a poem called ‘Gruagairí’ from her poetry collection ‘Turas Ailse’.

Evelyn is a passionate advocate for cancer trials, and she goes to meet Eibhlin Mulroe, CEO of Cancer Trails Ireland to find out how effective we are in Ireland at funding and promoting trials. Eibhlin explains that we have talented and dedicated medical professionals who drive trials here in Ireland but that our Government is failing to properly fund cancer trials.

Travelling abroad for treatment is an option that some women take and Evelyn talks to 221+ member and Longford mother, Lynsey Bennett about her recent experience of treatment in Mexico. They talk frankly about what supports women sometimes need as they navigate cancer treatment and its effects.

Evelyn travels to Cork to meet Dr Nóirín Russell, the director of CervicalCheck to ask her how viable the screening programme is in the light of the CervicalCheck scandal, and its fall out. Trust is being rebuilt slowly, she believes, and the programme has great potential to almost eradicate cervical cancer in Ireland.

Evelyn travels to Cork to meet GP Dr Sarah Fitzgibbon who is living with Stage 4 bowel cancer. Sarah explains that if she had developed her cancer ten years ago, that she would be ‘under the ground by now’. Thanks to research and medical advancements, she is still around and although she’ll never be cured of cancer, she has a good quality of life.

Country and Western singer Rose McConnon has terminal cancer and wants to live life to the full until the end. Evelyn meets her in her Monaghan home and hears her uplifting philosophy of life.

Musician Colm Mac Con Iomaire meets Evelyn in Dublin to talk about his sister Nuala and plays ‘I mBaclainn na nAingeal’ a piece he wrote in commemoration and celebration of her.

On a beach in Portmarnock Dee Featherstone tells Evelyn how she came up with the idea of her world record breaking Strip & Dip – a skinny dip by thousands of women in aid of cancer charities – and how invaluable community and support is for cancer survivors. Evelyn’s mother Peigí Uí Ruairc watches on as her daughter goes for a wintery dip with Dee and her Strip & Dip friends.

Produced by Tyrone Productions for TG4.

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