A County Antrim woman who suspected she had cancer has said she "fears she wouldn't be here" if she had not been able to afford to pay for a private diagnosis.
Liz Weir from Cushendall first noticed she had unusual symptoms in her nose in spring 2021.
The 72-year-old who is a resident storyteller for Libraries NI was told by her doctor that she faced a two year waiting list for an ENT (Ear, Nose Throat) appointment.
Suspecting she had cancer, Liz decided she could not afford to wait and paid to see a private Consultant. He confirmed the worst, it was a rare form of cancer called nasal melanoma.
Ms Weir underwent surgery on the NHS to remove as much of the tumour as possible and then a period of immunotherapy and radiotherapy.
She is one of a number of people turning to the private sector for healthcare amid fears over long waiting lists.
Richard Spratt CEO of Cancer Focus NI said it is something the charity is seeing a lot of:
"Many people are concerned about waiting lists and are turning to the private sector which as a charity we are hugely concerned about.
"We believe in a fair and equitable health service regardless of where people live or how much money people have in the bank account."
Liz is full of praise for the NHS and the care she received after her diagnosis but said she fears for others who can not afford to pay.
"We have to get some sort of solution to this, I am not that person but I think everybody needs to be working together, they worked together during Covid, they can work together now through what is a really big crisis," she said.
"I think more and more people will die if this doesn't get sorted, if you take all these people that have been waiting over a year for a consultant's appointment, that's actually postponing their treatment which is worsening their prognosis.
"So I think it's really important that people do get their act together, the people on the ground are doing their best but politicians have to take some action."
In a statement, the Department of Health said: "It is extremely disappointing that the Department’s performance targets for cancer waiting times are not being met. The length of time patients in Northern Ireland were waiting for assessment, diagnosis and treatment for cancer was increasing before the pandemic and this has been exacerbated in the past three years."The Department and entire HSC system are committed to reducing cancer waiting times. Our cancer screening programmes have significantly increased activity and both bowel and breast cancer screening are now above pre-pandemic levels."The Cancer Strategy, launched by the former Health Minister in March 2022, provides the strategic direction for the transformation of cancer services over the next 10 years.
"Last month, two Rapid Diagnosis Centres (RDCs) - the first of their kind in Northern Ireland – were launched at Whiteabbey Hospital and Dungannon’s South Tyrone Hospital, with the first patients seen at both sites before Christmas.
"The opening of these clinics, which is a key action set out in the Cancer Strategy, provides a new pathway for cancer diagnosis for people with vague but concerning symptoms, which do not meet the criteria for other red flag cancer pathways.
"Over the coming year these sites will expand to accept referrals from GPs across the whole of Northern Ireland, and potentially also to include those with a red flag referral for cancer.
"This has the potential to reduce the number of GP, hospital consultant and diagnostic appointments and significantly speed up diagnosis."In addition, the Day Procedure Centre (DPC) at Lagan Valley Hospital (LVH) supports a range of specialties from across the region to undertake day surgery. Omagh Hospital was announced as the second Regional Day Procedure Centre and has been provided with additional funding to enhance capacity for Elective Care Services.
"It is anticipated that the Omagh DPC will be operational in early 2023, with a number of day surgery lists already underway. Elective Overnight Stay Centres for patients requiring intermediate complexity surgery, and a stay of 0-3 days, are also being developed.
"The Mater Hospital in Belfast was identified as the first Elective Overnight Stay Centre with Daisy Hill Hospital being announced as the second Overnight Stay Centre in October 2022.
"The Department is working with the Western Trust to make the South West Acute Hospital Northern Ireland’s third Elective Overnight Stay Centre. These improvements in elective surgery will positively impact on cancer patients care and treatment, with both shorter waits and improved outcomes.
"While measures to reduce waiting times have been of vital importance it is acknowledged that a step change in cancer performance requires a significant investment in capacity, together with modernised care pathways underpinned by effective skills mix and use of technology.
"This will require substantial and sustained investment in workforce and services. However, In the absence of an agreed multi-year budget for health and a significant projected overspend for the year, the ability to strategically plan beyond 22/23 is extremely challenging."
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