Midsummer’s ball to fund cancer treatments for children in east Africa

A major fundraising event will take place later this month to raise vital cash to finance the work of a children’s cancer care specialist in Tanzania.

Siobhan McDonagh, who is based in Prospect Hill, is part of a four person group organising a midsummers’ ball in the Radisson Hotel on Saturday June 17 for a charity called Their Lives Matter which was established by her friend Dr Trish Scanlan.

Dr Scanlan is from Bray and met Dr Higgins when they both trained in paediatrics at University Hospital Galway in 1999. The Wicklow doctor spent a year working in Galway (which she calls her second home ) and went on to specialise as a paediatric oncologist. She began working in Muhimbili National Hospital in eastern Africa in 2007 where she provides cancer care to children.

Her achievements include setting up a new national paediatric oncology centre in Muhimbili National Hospital, establishing a training programme in paediatric haematology and oncology in Tanzania from which local experts are now emerging, and helping to establish Tanzania’s first association for parents of childern with cancer to support fundraising, early detection, and advocacy. In addition, she improved the survival rates for paediatric cancers from 12 per cent to 60 per cent in her first 18 months there.

Dr Scanlan received a UCD Alumni Award in 2014 in recognition of her work. Since 2015 she was involved in setting up a charity called Their Lives Matter to raise much needed funds to support the treatment of children with cancer in Tanzania.

Dr Higgins, who is organising the ball with Dr Orla Flanagan, a local consultant paediatrician, Dr Marina Curran, a local GP and Maureen Brown, a community nurse, says the charity aims to ensure that children living in Tanzania who develop cancer are diagnosed in a “timely fashion” and are given “appropriate treatment”. It is essential that all children have equal access to lifesaving cancer treatment, she says.

Last year’s ball raised €31,000 for the charity and the organisers hope to exceed that figure this year.

“We have been extremely blessed with fantastic generosity from businesses here in Galway. It has been the most enjoyable part of being involved in such an event. There is absolutely no doubt about it but Irish people have great hearts. Despite the economic downturn in the last few years we have had an incredible response from local businesses and medical device companies who keep on giving to charity events like this.”

She describes Dr Scanlan as “one of those unique human beings that has touched all of us in a special way”. Her friend has experienced a number of challenges in recent years, including being diagnosed with breast cancer on two occasions. Despite this she has continued her lifesaving work in Tanzania.

Writing recently in a Boston journal the Wicklow paediatric oncologist said beating cancer once is a miracle of modern medicine. Surviving it a second time is a “rare privilege afforded very few”. She described her cancer experience as a “strange (scary ) but remarkably educational journey”.

“As a doctor I was used to discussing statistics. But it was only as a patient that I understood or learned the hard way, how meaningless they are. Eighty per cent of women with localised triple negative breast cancer are cured with modern treatment. Sounds great until you have a real chance of being in the 20 per cent!

“Despite all the trauma a cancer diagnosis delivers, if you survive it you can gain so much of value. I learned simple truths which should have been obvious to me as a doctor, that bad news is better than no news and that I was not, in fact, indispensable.

“I also learned about symptoms in a way that is only possible by living them. If it wasn’t so toxic I would be recommending every aspiring oncologist take at least one course of chemotherapy. But more than all these practical lessons the most important knowledge cancer unlocked was simply understanding how incredibly lucky I am. Born into a position in the world where I automatically benefit from all the risks taken by so many brave pioneers of oncology - decades of doctors, nurses, and most of all, patients. I guess it took confronting mortality at 39 to focus the mind. It made me realise on the grand scale of life and the universe there is essentially no difference between living 40 or 80 years - what matters is whether you live well or squander those years. Living with purpose should always have mattered but now it is essential.

“For me it meant altering my life plan in two ways. I’ve moved from helping a single hospital build a paediatric oncology service to a slightly larger vision of helping the national service reach and care for every child with cancer in Tanzania. Every child should have the chances I have been given.”

The mid summer’s ball in aid of the charity Their Lives Matter will take place at the Radisson Hotel on Saturday June 17. Tickets cost €100 and include a prosecco reception, a four course meal, wine and entertainment. For further information or to buy tickets email [email protected] or telephone (086 ) 3826408.

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