The earlier your diagnosis, the better the prognosis - Jake O’Kane

Farmers are a particularly ‘at risk’ group for skin cancer due to their outdoor work

Jake O'Kane

Jake O'Kane

Jake is a comic, columnist and contrarian.

Enjoying the weather at Botanic gardens in Belfast during the sunshine on Sunday.
Crowds in Belfast's Botanic Gardens take advantage of last month's warm weather and enjoy the sunshine (Colm Lenaghan)

The sun has begun to make an appearance in our skies which means it’s time for my annual warning to cover up and smack on some sunblock to avoid skin cancer.

Cancer Focus NI has highlighted the fact that skin cancer is Northern Ireland’s most common cancer with over 4,000 recorded cases annually, around 11 new cases diagnosed a day.

Farmers are a particularly ‘at risk’ group due to their outdoor work. I have memories of summers spent on my uncle’s farm as a child, suffering sunburn on a regular basis due to days spent bringing in the hay or turf, or playing around the farm in blistering heat.

This was the 1960s - sunblock remained decades away with the only treatment being a liberal coating of calamine lotion to calm the burnt skin. It’s a sobering statistic that one such bad instance of sunburn in childhood or adolescence doubles your chances of developing skin cancer in later life.

Of course, prevention is better than a cure, so if you are going to spend extended periods in the sun, wear a hat and apply sun block on exposed skin.

As for my generation who may have suffered such burns when young, early diagnosis and treatment of melanomas is key. If you have any concerns about skin blemishes or moles, please don’t put off seeking medical treatment, as the earlier your diagnosis, the better the prognosis.


I have memories of summers spent on my uncle’s farm as a child, suffering sunburn on a regular basis due to days spent bringing in the hay or turf, or playing around the farm in blistering heat

A BBC documentary aired on Monday dealing with the scandal around thefts from the British Museum. I touched on this story earlier this year when I wrote, “The other argument used for the retention of such items in the British Museum is that it offers the best possible security. This conceit was blown out of the water recently with the discovery that over 1,500 items have been stolen from the Museum over a considerable period, with serious security failures including woefully inadequate documentation of artefacts in storage, meaning the actual number of losses is anyone’s guess.”

The documentary bore this out, highlighting the museum’s cataloguing system was so inadequate that it’s impossible to estimate how much was taken.

The hero of the saga was Dr Ittai Gradel, a dealer in antique gemstones. A quietly spoken man with a photographic memory, Dr Gradel used this unusual skill to identify items on eBay he knew belonged to the British Museum.

A man of absolute integrity, he contacted museum authorities to alert them about the thefts. He received a curt reply informing him he was mistaken as the items he’d mentioned were still registered as being in their stores.

It took two years before the museum admitted that Dr Gradel had been correct and, after the full magnitude of the problem became clear, both the museum director, Hartwig Fischer, and deputy director, Dr Jonathan Williams, resigned.

Why the museum chose initially to ignore the problem was down to a reluctance to admit such a failure of oversight, as this would have invariably led to accusations of incompetence.


Journalists Barry McCaffrey (left) and Trevor Birney (right) at an Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) hearing in London
Journalists Barry McCaffrey, pictured left, and Trevor Birney leaving the Royal Courts of Justice in London in May following a hearing over claims they were secretly monitored by police (Victoria Jones/PA)

As interesting as the British Museum story is, what I find fascinating is how organisations react when a whistleblower such as Dr Gradel appears.

A closer-to-home example of such a circling of the wagons is how the PSNI reacted to the documentary, No Stone Unturned, about the 1994 Loughinisland attack. The film exposed evidence of police blunders, cover up and collusion, yet these issues were conveniently ignored, focusing instead on suspicions around the theft of an unredacted Police Ombudsman investigation into the massacre.

The decision by the police to arrest journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney over this resulted in the PSNI having to pay damages to both journalists as well as the documentary-maker amounting to £875k.

Yet this wasn’t the end of the saga, with the PSNI now exposed as having tapped the phones of journalists to identify whistleblowers within their organisation. I have no doubt those within the PSNI who instigated the journalists’ arrests and the snooping of their phones will feel justified in doing so. They’ll explain their actions as being essential, due to internal security or some other nebulous excuse.

Our new chief constable, Jon Boutcher, has a background in dealing with the idiosyncrasies of NI policing, having previously headed the Kenova investigation into the IRA agent Stakeknife. We can but hope that his loyalty to the organisation he now heads doesn’t clash with his desire to get to the truth around the surveillance of journalists doing their jobs.