We as a country are facing a second wave of Covid-19, with an increasing number of cases being recorded as we edge into a seasonal shift. At the time of writing this article, there is a government ban of different households mixing in Northern Ireland (with some exemptions) and a hospitality can only provide takeaway and delivery services to curb the spread of the virus. For a country with a population of around 1.9 million, the infection trends reflect the seriousness of our situation. It is my opinion that we must protect ourselves and those around us if there is any chance to halt Covid-19 in its deadly tracks before the mortality rates begin to rise again. We are at a perilous stage and it is imperative that we follow all recommended guidelines that have been put in place, such as sanitisation, face coverings and social distancing measures.
However, although the seriousness of the virus is regularly covered within the media (and in most cases rightfully so to instil the gravity of the pandemic), I feel that in such a perilous period of our lives, there needs to be a re-focus on other aspects of physical and mental health. Health is multi-faceted and hence it is important to be aware of other diseases, viruses and infections as Covid-19 cases resurge. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which focuses on ‘campaigning, volunteering and fundraising’ in order to fund and support ‘world-class research’ in the field of breast cancer. This awareness campaign has led me to realise that research and check-ups with regards to diseases such as cancer have been put on hold or ‘paused’ because of Covid-19. That is why I believe that we need to be paying attention to other aspects of health, as well as the dangers of Covid-19, to keep ourselves and those closest to us safe. Currently, an excess of articles focus solely on the spread of Covid-19 as we approach Winter, instead of covering the recommencement of health check-ups, screenings and the incredible work that our healthcare system continues to provide post-lockdown. Therefore, I wish to address awareness campaigns and screening statistics in relation to physical health and highlight mental health services, as this almost endless period of lockdown has put a strain on our mentality in addition to our physicality. It is not my intention to ignore the ongoing narrative of Covid-19, but rather to address these health factors in line with the recent spread of the virus. There needs to be a balance between coverage of and research into a vaccine for Covid-19, as well as other aspects of health so that everyone’s physical and mental wellbeing can be prioritised in a safe manner.
As previously mentioned, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a disease which continues to impact the lives of women (and men) regardless of Covid-19, with 55,176 cases and 11,399 deaths between 2015-2017. With the heightened risk of Covid-19, the funding for research stalled and screenings for cancer patients have been either delayed or cancelled altogether. According to Cancer Research UK, ‘Covid-19 has had a significant impact on primary care – patient presentation levels decreased, and (…) around 350,000 fewer people than normal in the UK were sent on an urgent suspected cancer referral during April-August 2020’. Additionally, other services, such as smear tests, were put on hold over lockdown. Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust estimates that ‘around 600,000 [smear] tests would have been carried out in the UK in April and May had services been operating normally - but many were cancelled or delayed’. Clearly, this global pandemic has put a huge strain on both cancer research and screenings, with the decrease in referrals suggesting that many individuals potentially went undiagnosed during lockdown. The guidance of staying in-doors prevented hundreds of thousands of people from being physically reviewed by a cancer specialist or a GP. As individuals protected themselves from the unflinching risks of Covid-19 lying outdoors, they may have potentially overlooked the dangers of other deadly diseases such as cancer. Equally, current cancer patients who may have just received a diagnosis, treatment or those who have been in remission had their treatment patterns or regular check-ups disrupted due to their status as vulnerable people at higher risk of contracting the virus. Knowing someone close to me who is in remission from Stage Four cancer, I noticed the impact shielding and the absence of regular check-ups had upon their physical/mental wellbeing. Regardless of what stage individuals were at in their cancer journey, Covid-19 derailed the trajectory of ‘normal’ treatment and recovery.
Nonetheless, it is time for a re-focus on these vital health services as we grow accustomed to living with Covid-19 for the foreseeable future. Many charities are sharing resources for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, such as diagrams on how to safely and accurately check yourself at home for signs of breast cancer (Breast Cancer Now and Cancer Focus NI in particular provide informative videos and diagrams on Instagram) and are asking for donations so that research into cancer (and other diseases) can continue in the aftermath of national lockdown. Other charities and information services are heightening the fact that most services have re-commenced, albeit in a different capacity to normal operation. Cancer Research UK recently launched a campaign which highlighted the importance of individuals contacting/phoning their GP if they notice anything abnormal as ‘patient presentation and urgent referrals continue to be slow to recover’ post-lockdown. It is imperative that awareness and treatment continues in conjunction with the existence of Covid-19, so that lives can ultimately be saved from cancer and the virus. With regards to smear tests in Northern Ireland, there is currently a ‘phased restoration’ of the service, alongside others such as routine breast and bowel cancer screenings. The Public Health Agency reinforces that there is a ‘backlog of people awaiting screening’ and that the numbers that can be tested have been impacted by ‘appropriate infection control measures’. Nevertheless, it is reassuring that important services such as these have resumed. Paired with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it is imperative that we remain vigilant in the fight against cancer and other diseases whilst making use of online resources, remote GP appointments and the resumption of screenings. Covid-19 continues to be a part of our lives and consumes many daily headlines and articles. However, it is time that there is a re-focus and increased coverage on other elements of our physical wellbeing, as we collectively protect ourselves and others from this unforgiving virus.
Another element of our wellbeing which requires a re-focus is the awareness of mental health. My mental health, like so many others globally, suffered from the constraints of lockdown in that I went from socialising with others regularly to isolating largely indoors alongside the repeated news bulletins focusing on the morbidity of Covid-19. Although lockdown restrictions have somewhat eased since then, mental health issues for many individuals persist. As the seasons shift, it is important to reiterate the significance of mental health services. Mental Health Awareness Day took place globally on the 10th October and scrolling through my newsfeed on that day I observed an outpouring of hope and support in these most challenging of times, with charities such as Mental Health Foundation reiterating the theme of ‘mental health for all’. Access to mental health services and treatment should be universal and available to all regardless of socioeconomic status.
Additionally, as the non-stop coverage and dangers of Covid-19 infiltrate our headspaces, the gesture of reaching out to those closest to you, who may be mentally struggling, is even more important. There needs to be an urgent re-consideration of mental health, in addition to physical health, due to the many associated risks Covid-19 has manifested. If you are reading this and are mentally struggling, there are many incredible local and national services that can provide guidance such as Samaritans, MindWise and Action Mental Health. If you are student, many universities provide internal mental health support, such as Queen’s University Belfast, with the Student Wellbeing Service providing counselling sessions and QUB Nightline providing a confidential listening service. Despite the pandemic, these services are still operating so do not hesitate to reach out and ask for help. Along with physical health awareness, mental health awareness during the pandemic is essential for the maintaining of personal wellbeing.
In conclusion, there needs to be a re-focus on the coverage of additional physical and mental health aspects, as we continue to fight against the spread of Covid-19. As the risks associated with the virus develop, more research, awareness and media coverage of other health factors (such as cancer screenings and dialogues on mental health) are required if we are to fully prioritise health within this unpredictable period of our lives. Only then will we able to more readily protect ourselves and others against this deadly, unforgiving virus, whilst adjusting to the ‘new normal’.
Molly Quinn-Leitch is a 23 year old student living in Belfast, originally from Omagh. She has an undergraduate degree in English from QUB and is currently working towards a Master of Arts degree in Literary Studies.