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Nearly 11,000 people in Britain could be living with undiagnosed breast cancer due to Covid upheaval

Maya Oppenheim
·3-min read
A drug which could help extend the lives of women with incurable advanced breast cancer has been approved for NHS use (iStock/Getty Images)
A drug which could help extend the lives of women with incurable advanced breast cancer has been approved for NHS use (iStock/Getty Images)

Nearly 11,000 people in Britain could be living with breast cancer that has gone undiagnosed due to the pandemic interrupting services, a new study has found.

The research, carried out by Breast Cancer Now, estimates around 10,700 fewer people around the country were diagnosed with breast cancer between March and December 2020 due to the Covid crisis.

In the worst cases, some women could die due to having their cancer diagnosis postponed, the UK’s leading breast cancer charity warned.

Breast cancer is the most prevalent type of cancer in the UK and the disease claims around 11,500 women’s lives every year. While one in seven women in Britain will develop breast cancer at one point in their life – with one woman diagnosed every 10 minutes.

The pandemic has massively disrupted breast cancer services with the NHS breast screening programme being halted and fewer appointments now happening as a result of measures to contain the virus.

The study found almost 1.2 million fewer women had breast screening between March and December last year, while there was a 90,000 plummet in referrals to a specialist for people with potential breast cancer symptoms in England between March and December 2020.

Women surveyed said they were reluctant to go to medical appointments due to being fearful of catching coronavirus as well as worrying they were overwhelming the NHS. Researchers said some GPs have been resistant to directing their patients to local hospitals due to anxiety around Covid infection.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at Breast Cancer Now, said: “Looking ahead, while we cannot know the full impacts of the pandemic, what we do know now is that over the coming years the number of women coming forward could overwhelm our already over-stretched workforce.

“Women with breast cancer have already paid an unacceptable price due to the pandemic – we simply cannot afford for any more time to pass before UK governments invest in and tackle the crisis facing the cancer workforce. Only then will we be giving women the best chance of an early breast cancer diagnosis, which we know is critical to their chances of survival.”

Researchers urged the government to make long-term investments in the cancer services now.

Dr Jeanette Dickson, president of The Royal College of Radiologists, said: “It is vital that those patients who missed screening last year – or who did not see their GP if they had possible symptoms – come forward. The NHS is open for business and the sooner we can diagnose cancer, the sooner we can treat it.

“Screening teams are getting back up to speed, but breast imaging services were in a precarious position going into the coronavirus pandemic and those resourcing challenges are still there. Many breast units have vacancies and there is a looming shortage of breast radiologists due to retirements.

“The backlog of cases waiting will put even more pressure on stretched diagnostic teams and the cancer teams then responsible for tailoring and delivering treatment.”

She warned diagnostic and treatment workers who care for breast cancer patients “desperately needs more investment” to make sure patients receive the “speedy care they deserve”.

Jane Murphy, clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Now, said: “The sooner breast cancer is diagnosed the better the chances of treatment being successful, which makes it vital that women continue to check their breasts regularly and get any new or unusual changes checked with the GP, and continue to attend breast screening appointments when invited.

“The NHS wants people to attend their appointments and report symptoms to their GP – they have measures in place to keep staff and patients safe.

“In these challenging times, I want to remind people that I and my team of expert nurses are at the end of the phone, ready to provide information and support to anyone affected by breast cancer – call our free Helpline on 0808 800 6000.”

Around 55,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in Britain each year, with approximately one in five of these being triple negative. Younger women and black women are more likely to develop this form of breast cancer which is generally more aggressive.

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