Almost one million women in the UK have missed vital breast screening due to COVID-19, the leading UK breast cancer charity, Breast Cancer Now has warned.
As we enter Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Breast Cancer Now estimates that around 986,000 women missed their mammograms due to breast screening programmes being paused in March, in a bid to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading and to free up emergency resource for the NHS.
Worryingly, the charity anticipates that around 8,600 of the women caught up in this backlog could have been living with undetected breast cancer, with their diagnosis delayed due to the detrimental impact of COVID-19 on the NHS.
While the breast screening programme is now starting up again, at different speeds across the country, availability of appointments has been significantly reduced due to measures to enable social distancing and to prevent COVID-19 spreading. Combined with this, the significant backlog of women waiting for screening, and more women starting to come forward with concerns about possible breast cancer symptoms, will place huge pressure on the imaging and diagnostic workforce which was already over-stretched prior to the pandemic.
Breast Cancer Now is deeply concerned by these delays to breast screening as early detection is critical to preventing women dying from breast cancer. As such, delays have caused some women huge anxiety, and the reality is that if breast cancer is diagnosed at a later stage it may be harder to treat.
The charity is urgently calling on Governments and NHS bodies across the UK to set out how the anticipated influx in demand for imaging and diagnostics will be met. It is also calling on the UK Government to commit in its upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review to investing in the NHS cancer workforce to ensure breast cancer cases are diagnosed as early as possible.
Speaking about the statistics, Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at 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.”
“The UK Government must also seize the timely opportunity presented by the Comprehensive Spending Review, to urgently invest in recruiting and training NHS staff so that the workforce is equipped to give all women with breast cancer the best possible chance of early diagnosis.”
Mary Wilson, Consultant Breast Radiologist at the Nightingale Centre, Wythenshawe Hospital, and Lead for the National Breast Imaging Academy Project added, “Screening diagnoses around 19,000 breast cancers a year in England and there has already been a delay of over four months in the programme.”
“To not only maintain pre-pandemic levels of activity, but also do a huge catch up with inadequate workforce levels is an enormous mountain to climb.”
“Our most valuable asset is our staff – we simply have to invest in them.”
“We desperately need more radiologists.”
“You can’t make a radiologist quickly, so a long-term investment plan is essential.”
“There’s no overnight fix.”
“As a nation we must recognise and address the workforce issues and invest in the NHS which throughout the pandemic has done a fantastic job.”
“But we now really do need ongoing support.”
While screening comes with some risks to be aware of, Breast Cancer Now encourages all women to attend their appointments when invited. The charity also urges women who notice any new or unusual changes in their breasts to get in touch with their GP urgently, and it is critical women continue to do so during the pandemic. While most breast changes won’t be cancer it is crucial to get them checked as the sooner breast cancer is diagnosed, the more likely treatment is to be successful.
Anyone concerned about COVID-19 and breast screening can call the charity’s free Helpline on 0808 800 6000.
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