17th March 2020

Lung cancer in Northern Ireland

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In honour of St Patrick’s Day, we’ve taken a closer look at lung cancer in Northern Ireland, including access to treatment.

The north of Ireland not only boasts World Heritage sites such as the Giant’s Causeway on the north coast, but also offers stunning and contrasting countryside, towns and cities. It’s also closely linked to the stories and legends surrounding St Patrick himself.

In common with the rest of the world, Northern Ireland faces a major health issue in lung cancer.

More than 1,300 people in the North are diagnosed with the disease each year, and it claims around 1,000 lives. One-year lung cancer survival rates are below average for other parts of the UK. However, there’s better news too as five-year survival in Northern Ireland is now around 11%, slightly above the UK average. 


Disruptions to the political processes in recent years (the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended between January 2017 and January 2020) have affected health care. Even before the suspension, however, there were issues affecting care for cancer patients in Northern Ireland.

A major report published by the Northern Ireland Assembly lists several factors that have hindered progress for people living with cancer. Key points include: 

  • There are three main cancer policies in Northern Ireland. However, the absence of formal performance reviews means it is not possible to assess how effective those strategies have been.

“All jurisdictions in the UK and Republic of Ireland have, or are in the process of, updating their cancer strategies. The exception is Northern Ireland, which published its strategy almost ten years ago”.

Cancer: Northern Ireland report by Dr Lesley-Ann Black and Keara McKay, 2017
  • The main cancer treatments include surgery, radiotherapy and drug therapies (such as chemotherapy). Data is unavailable regarding how much Northern Ireland’s healthcare budget is spent on cancer provision, nor how many patients are receiving these treatments. Hence, it is difficult to determine whether services are being targeted appropriately.
  • Cancer is diagnosed via a staging process. However, 45% of cancer patients in Northern Ireland are diagnosed at the later stages – namely stage three or four. This is when cancer is far more difficult to treat. This impacts on patient quality of life and survival rates.
  • None of the three cancer waiting time targets [for Northern Ireland] have been achieved in several years. One target has never been achieved – eight years after its inception. As demand for cancer care increases, this raises questions like why do these unachievable targets remain in place, and what actions are being taken to improve waiting times?

The ‘Cancer: Northern Ireland’ report also highlights delays with diagnostic tests, shortages of radiologists, severe pressures on GPs and disparities for patients in terms of access to treatments and travel times, especially for people in rural areas. Last year, nurses went on strike in a dispute over pay and staffing levels. 

Our chief executive, Paula Chadwick, recognises these particular challenges affecting health care in Northern Ireland. She comments:

“Given the difficulties that Northern Ireland has witnessed it’s not surprising there are structural issues to overcome if we are to see real improvements for people living with lung cancer. We’re here for everyone affected by this disease, and we call for the same unity of vision and purpose from all those involved with deciding healthcare policies in Northern Ireland. It’s time to put the people first.”

Healthcare in Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland the National Health Service (NHS) is referred to as HSC or Health and Social Care. Just like the NHS, it is free at the point of delivery but in Northern Ireland it also provides social care services such as home care services, family and children’s services, day care services and social work services.

Services are commissioned by the Health and Social Care Board, and they are provided by five health and Social Care Trusts:

The Department of Health, Social Services and Public safety has overall authority for health and social care services.

Healthcare for Frontier Workers

Northern Ireland residents working in Ireland:

Are entitled to NHS health care, as they are legally resident in Northern Ireland

Ireland residents working in Northern Ireland:

Are entitled to a NHS medical card, however, their spouse and children are not eligible

Are eligible for free GP services

Are eligible to register with a NHS dentist

Are eligible for maternity services from a GP, a midwife and an obstetrician in a hospital if necessary

How we help

You can get information and support about lung cancer on our website or via our free Ask the Nurse helpline on 0800 358 7200. We also run support groups nationwide.