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Cancer Comhrá/Conversations

Each year, around 393,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with cancer. On average someone in the UK is diagnosed with cancer at least every 90 seconds. Although there is a neglect of contemporary data, Irish organisations inform us that the Irish in Britain continue to grapple with high cancer rates.


In an effort to address this concern with cultural sensitivity, Irish in Britain initiated the Cancer Comhrá/Conversations campaign in 2022.

This campaign aims to ensure that the Irish community in Britain are well informed about cancer, motivated to take preventive action and have access to high quality information and support.

The pilot-project has been funded by Macmillan Cancer Support to deliver in-person and online educational workshops, cancer awareness information and cancer specific services and support for the Irish community in Britain through collaboration with our member organisations.

Cancer and the Irish community in England and Wales

Dr Mary Tilki says

“In the absence of recent data, evidence from community organisations tells us that Irish people in Britain still have high death rates from cancer. Rates of death from cancer are going down in the UK, but rates for Irish people are going down more slowly and some appear to be rising.

"Part of the reason for the high incidence of cancer in the Irish community is because we are an older population. Research shows that cancer is more common as we age and sadly less well treated in older people.

We know from our community work that the Irish population in Britain tend to have lower participation in screenings. There are many different factors which contribute to this, not least our unwillingness to talk about cancer.

"This means that people often delay seeking help and present with cancer very late, when treatment is likely to be more aggressive and less successful. Because cancer statistics in minority ethnic groups exclude the Irish and focus only on visible communities, it is unclear whether the previously reported pattern of high rates among the second and third generations still persists but we think it is still the case.

"Research has shown that people from Irish and other migrant communities are less aware about cancer. They don’t talk about it, they don’t go for screening, they don’t get treatment early enough and therefore there are high rates of premature mortality in those communities.

"We Irish even avoid saying the word “cancer”, instead calling it the “big C” or talking about growths or masses”

Good news about cancer

Being diagnosed with cancer is clearly frightening and fear is a natural reaction. But our fears should not prevent us seeking help and recognising that there is good news about cancer. The good news is that more people are surviving cancer now than ever before.

In both the UK and Ireland, cancer survival have doubled in the last 50 years. 50 percent of people diagnosed with cancer today will survive their disease and live 10 years and beyond. When cancer is caught early, we have a far better chance of beating the disease and more options for treatments.

Great strides have been made in the detection and treatment of cancer and many are now successfully cured, especially if diagnosed and treated early. In 2023, new analysis found that the NHS is diagnosing more patients with cancer at an earlier stage than ever before.

Cultural reasons why Irish people do not seek help early

Obviously, there is a danger of assuming all Irish people behave in the same way, but our experience suggests there are some common factors which contribute to late diagnosis and therefore poorer survival. Irish people are reluctant to accept the cancer screening that is on offer, seek medical help late and are diagnosed later so therefore treatment is more aggressive and less successful.


Older people in particular are reluctant to bother the doctor thinking that their problems are never as bad as anybody else’s.

Although cancer rates are improving considerably, the rate is slower among older people. Men are worse than women. They are big and strong and don’t fuss. We need to encourage friends and family to seek medical help.

We Irish can be intolerant of people who we think are preoccupied with their own health, always ill or always going to the doctor. Also, if the doctor tells them there is nothing wrong or they are being overanxious, they don’t argue. Many older people especially are afraid to question people in authority such as doctors. If they are fobbed off, they are less likely to go back, even though the symptoms persist.

Many Irish people are embarrassed to talk about bowels or waterworks. Some people have even thrown the bowel cancer test in the bin rather than fiddle with a bit of poo!

We don’t like talking about our private parts. Vaginas, vulvas, anuses and penises are strictly taboo, so we don’t go for cervical screening, mammography and men are particularly reluctant to have prostate examinations.

Irish people are also reluctant to seek professional help if they think they might be in some way to blame for their health through smoking, drinking, bad diet etc. People will treat themselves with over the counter medicines.

Others rely on prayer, novenas or candles. Although this is important coping strategy, it should not delay getting professional help.

If you believe in the power of prayer, pray for the courage to go to the doctor, pray that the doctor will listen, refer you quickly and if cancer is found, that you will have best consultant and the finest treatment.

Bowel Cancer Screening FIT home testing kit

Early detection of cancer can significantly improve treatment outcomes.

Bowel cancer is a common cancer among the Irish community and through our Cancer Comhrá campaign, we have been collaborating with St Marks Bowel Cancer Screening unit to urge people to avail of the free NHS postal test kit.

Screening is a way of testing healthy people to see if they show any early signs of cancer.

‘Everybody aged 54-74 who is registered with a GP is sent the NHS Bowel Screening FIT home testing kit every two years, this is lowering to 50 years old this year.

Did you know only about 50 percent of those invited take part, one of the most common reasons is people think “ I don’t have any symptoms so I don’t need to worry” and don’t take part.

The screening programme is for people who DON’T HAVE SYMPTOMS. Doing the test can prevent cancer before it starts! If a cancer is found during screening it is generally at an early stage and highly curable.

So if you receive a test kit in the post, don’t put it off, do it as soon as possible and return it in the freepost envelope provided. Remember, you could stop cancer before it starts!’

Andrew Prentice, St Marks Bowel Cancer Screening Programme

People concerned that they may have missed their invitation or have lost or thrown away their kit can call the free bowel cancer screening helpline for advice on 0800 707 60 60. People aged 75 and over can also request a kit through this helpline.

What to do if you are worried?

Go to your doctor if you have signs you are worried about. Cancer can be difficult to diagnose in the early stages because the symptoms could be related to a number of different disorders which are not cancer.

Make a note of your symptoms, keep a diary if necessary, be firm but insistent that you want to be investigated. Don’t be fobbed off. Take somebody with you, if you don’t feel strong enough to insist on being investigated.

If you don’t have cancer, the sooner you know, the less worry you have and if you have cancer, the earlier it is treated, the better chance of survival and less aggressive treatment you will have.

Talk to a cancer specialist

If you have a question about cancer, or you just need someone to listen, you can chat to a cancer expert on the Macmillan Support Line. From cancer treatment, to money worries, to feeling down, there is no problem too big or small and they will do whatever it takes to support you.

You might think other people need help more, but you shouldn't let that stop you from contacting them. Macmillan are there for everybody living with or affected by cancer and want to hear from you.

For free, confidential advice from a cancer specialist, you can: call the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00 (open 7 days a week, 8am to 8pm. Opening times may vary for different specialist teams).

They may request a call back at a time that works for you.


If you would like any additional support or information - please reach out to us and we will do our best to help you. Email Ellen, Irish in Britain’s Health Officer,

Access more of our Cancer Comhrá resources