Several hundred brassieres dangled outside Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen’s office when campaigners marched on government buildings in protest against next week’s planned transfer of vital cancer services from the north west to Galway.

Hundreds of women from Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal proudly attached their bras to railings and barriers to highlight their fears of what the future holds if the HSE goes ahead with its plan to transfer the services from Sligo General Hospital to University College Hospital Galway on August 6.

The move is a main cog in a new national cancer control program to create eight specialist so-called centers of excellence for treatment. None of the centers is north of a line from Galway to Dublin, prompting complaints that many patients, especially those in the north west, will have to make return journeys of more than 200 miles for life-saving treatment.

Tuesday’s demo started at the presidential residence, Aras an Uachtarain, where the campaigners handed in a letter for President Mary McAleese.

Another letter for Health Minister Mary Harney was delivered at her Dublin city center offices before the bra protest Cowen’s office.

One of the main organizers, Susan O’Keeffe, said, “If we do nothing cancer services for the northwest will be completely lost under the HSE plan to transfer them to Galway.”

National Cancer Control Program chief, Professor Tom Keane, told family doctors in the northwest that Sligo General Hospital will no longer accept new symptomatic breast cancer referrals from August 6, and that they should be referred to University College Hospital in Galway.

O’Keeffe, who hung a red bra outside Cowen’s office, said, “We want the government to stop this move. It makes no financial sense and doctors and consultants say it makes no medical sense either.”

She added, “The bra demo is a symbolic thing. Many of the people affected by the proposed move to Galway are breast-cancer patients. This is about equality. If you live in Dublin there will be four centers of excellence where you can go for cancer treatment. You will probably get to one within 45 minutes.

“If you pay your taxes and live in Sligo or Leitrim or Donegal are you not entitled to the same level of access for your care and your health?”

The Labor Party’s Health spokesperson Jan O’Sullivan said she supported the concept of centers of excellence, but not the “geographical apartheid” that has located all eight in the bottom half of the country.

“The decision to ignore geography and distance was wrong,” she said.

A statement from the Cancer Control Program defended the transfer of services to Galway. “The radiotherapy development and oncology services available at Galway University Hospitals now provide every component of state of the art breast cancer treatments. Breast re-construction is not available in Sligo General Hospital,” the statement said.

“A purpose built symptomatic breast unit was opened in Galway in June last year and developments in medical oncology and radiation oncology supported by the National Cancer Control Program means that all therapies related to breast cancer can be delivered at the hospital providing a quality assured service for patients. 

“The breast surgical service in Sligo General Hospital has been run on a solo basis similar to many other hospitals from where services have been transferred, with only one surgeon providing the service.”