Sonya Lynch Laia Raigal

Patients, support staff and clinicians recognised at Irish Cancer Society Research Awards

Dedicated individuals behind Cork and Galway-based projects claim the honours at annual awards showcase

Patients, support staff and clinicians from around the country were represented and honoured at the annual Irish Cancer Society Research Awards on Thursday.

Projects based in Cork and Galway were the big winners on the night, and there was once again a distinctively international flavour to proceedings with prizes going to researchers from France and Catalonia.

Patient advocate Sonya Lynch was named as the Society’s first ever Public & Patient Involvement Champion of the Year, an award that acknowledges the contribution of the public and patients who are at the heart of its research projects, helping to ensure that they are meaningful and of benefit to those affected by cancer.

The Corkwoman has used her experience of metastatic breast cancer to help others and a team member of the novel Linking You To Support & Advice (LYSA) study at Cork University Hospital. 

The study which is under the direction of Prof Roisin Connolly, a CUH-based medical oncologist and Chair of Cancer Research at UCC, is part of the Irish Cancer Society’s Women’s Health Initiative which is researching how women can be best supported through what has traditionally been an underappreciated aspect of the cancer journey.

Commenting on her award, Sonya said: “Working as a patient advocate has given me a voice; and not that I speak for every person, but I know what it is like to go through treatment with young children, to lose your hair and go through these experiences that other people go through, and I have brought all those experiences to the team.

Sonya added: “It has empowered me to address issues that I might not otherwise have been able to address in public. As a cancer patient I’m really grateful for all the work that is going on with the study. It’s gratifying for me to see that structures are coming into place as a result of the work that we have been involved in that will benefit patients into the future, including elements that I feel would have helped me along the way.”

Also honoured on the night for her important contribution to the innovative clinic – which offers help and advice to a selected group of participants recruited through the research study – was team member Dr Laia Raigal.

Dr Raigal was awarded Research Support Staff of the Year for her role in pushing the study forward even as Covid squeezed hospital teams, helping to recruit patients into the study and to capture reliable data so that the effectiveness of the novel model can be rigorously monitored.

“I always put my heart and everything into my job. I’m so passionate about research as I feel it has so much benefit, and it gives us evidence as to how we can do things better. Whenever I am involved in a project I try my utmost to keep things going, so for me an award like this means a lot in acknowledging my efforts, and that my team have recognised me,” Dr Raigal said.

Dr Alice Le Bonniec was named Senior Researcher of the Year.

The psychologist who is based in NUIG received funding from the charity for a post-doctoral research project that is aimed at improving the uptake rate for the BowelScreen programme. This National screening programme is available for everyone aged 60-69, but current uptake at around 40% is low compared to other screening programmes.

Commenting on her award, Dr Le Bonniec said: “If colorectal cancer is detected early, people have a very good chance of recovering so it is so important for people to get screened.

“At the moment it is still a bit taboo to speak about colorectal cancer and this is one of the main reasons why people do not want to be screened. The screening rate for bowel cancer is very low and this has been the case for some time, so it is important to increase awareness of this.

“I was surprised and delighted, and I am very honoured to receive this award from the Irish Cancer Society. This will be so helpful when seeking new funding to continue the work that I am involved in, as this kind of award is really important,” she added.

Following excellent presentations from PhD Researcher of the Year nominees Arif Jahangir, Martina Brennan and Caitríona Duggan on the night, the award was ultimately presented to Galway-based advanced nurse practitioner Caitríona Duggan for her research on the use of ultrasounds to help improve the insertion of cannulas or needles for patients undergoing cancer treatment.

“We know one in four patients require a second attempt at cannulation, and this increases patient anxiety and leads to treatment delays,” said Portiuncula-based advanced nurse practitioner Duggan, who is carrying out her research through NUIG School of Nursing and Midwifery.

“We want to prevent that so that they aren’t coming in and dreading the needle, so we need to better evaluate if ultrasound can help improve insertion success.

“I am so grateful I responded to Dr Peter Carr’s call for a clinical collaborator for the Irish Cancer Nurse Award 2021. I am excited about the opportunity to work with an internationally respected clinical researcher in intravenous access, our Public and Patient Involvement team, and the wider cancer research team at NUIG SAOLTA. I feel the quality of clinical research we are planning in evaluating ultrasound technology will only benefit our patients and highlight positively that nurses can lead research.”

Congratulating the winners, Irish Cancer Society Director of Research Dr Robert O'Connor said: "Our Research Awards are always a brilliant way to showcase the incredible work that is ongoing across a whole range of projects in such an important area. It's even more important that we recognise the achievements of researchers, support staff and patient advocates given the difficulties imposed on them throughout the pandemic, and it is only right that their skill, dedication and endeavours are acknowledged.

"Our awardees come from cancer centres and research institutes around the country, and it is heartening to see the quality cancer research that is flourishing in each of these areas. Through the continued support of the public including for our upcoming Daffodil Day, we are looking forward to putting even more support behind them as we push forward with an ambitious programme of work over the coming years to deliver real results for patients and the public."