One million women miss breast cancer screening due to Covid-19

Almost a million British women have “missed” a breast cancer screening appointment because of the Covid-19 
pandemic, a charity has estimated.

Wednesday, 30th September 2020, 7:00 am
A female patient undergoes a mammogram
A female patient undergoes a mammogram

Breast Cancer Now said that thousands of cancers could be undetected with their diagnosis delayed.

Breast cancer screening services were paused during the height of the pandemic to reduce the risk of the spread and free up emergency NHS resources.

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Now services have begun to resume, the charity has expressed concern over the number of women caught up in the backlog.

It has estimated that 986,000 women across the UK missed their mammograms due to breast screening programmes being paused. This breaks down to almost 838,000 women in England, 78,000 in Scotland, 48,000 in Wales and 23,000 in Northern Ireland.

Among these women, the charity estimates that there could be 8,600 women who are now living with undetected breast cancer.

It said that services have resumed at different speeds across the country.

The charity has called on NHS bodies across the UK and governments to set out how they plan to tackle an anticipated rise in demand for imaging and diagnostics.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive of Breast Cancer Now, said: “That nearly one million women across the UK were caught up in the backlog waiting for breast screening is cause for grave concern as we know that around 8,600 of these women could have been living with undetected breast cancer.

“Mammograms are a key tool in the early detection of breast cancer, which is critical to stopping women dying from the disease.

“We understand that the breast screening programme was paused out of necessity due to the global Covid-19 pandemic but we must now press play to ensure that all women can access breast screening, and we cannot afford for the programme to be paused again.

“Governments and NHS health bodies across the UK must set out how the influx in demand for imaging and diagnostics will be met.”

Separate figures yesterday showed cancer referrals in Scotland for the first three full months of lockdown were almost a quarter lower than a year ago.

Campaigners and politicians voiced alarm after official statistics revealed a key cancer waiting-times target was missed at the same time as referrals for treatment fell.

The Scottish Government had previously set the standard of having 95 per cent of all patients referred by a GP with an urgent suspicion of cancer, or patients who have been referred after screening, starting treatment within 62 days.

No health board achieved that target between April and June this year, with 84.1 per cent of patients across Scotland starting treatment within the target time, down from 84.7 per cent in the first three months of 2020.

The figures, from Public Health Scotland, also showed there were 3,056 eligible referrals for the 62-day standard, a decrease of 22 per cent on April to June 2019.

The report noted: “The reduction in eligible referrals is likely to be due to a combination of patients not seeking out help so as to be referred, and because of delays in patients having diagnostic tests and/or starting treatment because hospitals have been treating Covid-19 patients.”

Across Scotland, the 62-day standard was only met for two of ten different types of cancer – ovarian and breast.

For urological cancers only 61.7 per cent started treatment within this time.

Cancer Research Scotland said 1,526 fewer patients (23 per cent) started treatment for cancer compared with the same time last year.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said cancer had “remained a top priority throughout the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Marion O’Neill, from Cancer Research UK, said that, even with referrals falling, the 62-day target was still missed “and too many people were waiting too long for treatment to start”.

Ms O’Neill stated: “The growing backlog of people waiting is very worrying and must be tackled as a matter of urgency. The early diagnosis of cancer can significantly improve someone’s chances of survival.”

Scottish Conservative health spokesman Donald Cameron branded the drop in referrals as “extremely worrying”.

He warned: “This is a ticking time bomb for the health of Scottish people if it’s not tackled urgently.

“The SNP Government must concentrate on getting cancer treatment services running again as quickly as possible.”

Scottish Labour health spokeswoman Monica Lennon said: “These stark statistics have lifted the lid on Scotland’s crisis-hit cancer services.

“With the number of referrals plummeting and health boards failing to meet targets, we are running the risk of thousands of Scots receiving treatment too late and even more missing treatment all together.

“We cannot allow thousands of Scots to miss out on treatment or to receive treatment too late.”

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