How is the fight against cancer, especially breast cancer, changing at the time of coronavirus? October is the pink month of prevention, and now it may be more important than ever to talk about it. Due to the stop of first-level cancer investigations during the lockdown period, when it was not possible for patients to access hospitals for follow-up visits and screenings, women are facing an unprecedented threat.
The charity organisation Breast Cancer Now has estimated that almost one million women have missed mammograms in the UK, after screening services were paused in a bid to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading and to free up emergency resource for the NHS. To be more specific, we are talking about 986,361women in total, that breaks down to 837,940 women in England; 77,660 in Scotland; 47,905 in Wales and 22,856 in Northern Island. The charity also estimates that there could be 8,600 women who are now living with undetected breast cancer.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the UK. The NHS Breast Screening Programme is vital in detecting breast cancer at the earliest possibile stage, improving survival chances in patient affected by the disease. The programme detects 19,000 cases a year, preventing around 1,300 women dying from the disease each year across the country.
The charity organization has expressed a “grave concern” that nearly one million women will be caught in the backlog, which will lead to further delays in diagnosis. In addition, the charity warns that the service is under intense pressure as more women started to come forward with concerns about possible symptoms. Experts say that the NHS has an “enormous mountain to climb” to clear the screening backlog, while in desperate shortage of diagnostic staff to carry out the checks. This increase the pressure on the government to hold back on a second lockdown, with experts stressing that cancer care “cannot afford to be paused again.”
Leaked data obtain by the Health Service Journal revealed that nearly 6,400 people had waited more than 100 days following a referral to cancer services. Moreover, the number of patients on the cancer waiting lists increased from 50,000 in August to 58,000 in September. Those shocking figures put a spotlight on the profound impact COVID-19 has had on breast cancer to date.
After a pause of around four and a half months, some services have resumed across the country, even if at different speeds. However, it has been difficult for women to book an appointment, as those have been significantly reduced due to measures to enable social distancing and to prevent COVID-19 spreading. The charity has called on the NHS and government to lay out how they plan to tackle an anticipated rise in demand for imaging and diagnostics.
In a press release, Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Now, said: “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."
Baroness Delyth Morga also stated: "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.”
Written by Miriam Tagini