A breast cancer charity has warned thousands of delayed diagnoses during the Covid-19 pandemic could result in more women dying from the disease.
Breast Cancer Now estimates that around 10,700 fewer people in the UK were diagnosed with breast cancer between March and December 2020 because of the disruption caused by coronavirus. Breast screening was paused in the first lockdown and the number of appointments reduced.
It found nearly 1.2 million fewer UK women had breast screening between March and December 2020 from the same period the year before, and there was a 90,000 drop in referrals to a specialist for patients with possible symptoms of breast cancer in England.
The charity’s chief executive Baroness Delyth Morgan said the ‘tragic cost’ of the missed diagnoses is that ‘in the worst cases, women could die from the disease’.
‘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,’ Baroness Morgan continued.
‘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.’
She also predicted a ‘perfect storm’, which would see the ‘already over-stretched workforce’ working in imaging and diagnostics ‘overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the task moving forward’.
The team looked at a range of data from across the UK, including the number of people starting their first treatment for breast cancer within 31 days of a decision to treat, the number of breast cancer diagnoses and the number of women screened each month.
Women told the charity they did not attend appointments for fear of catching Covid-19 and not wanting to burden the NHS. Some said that GPs were reluctant to risk sending patients to a local hospital for fear of Covid-19 infection.
Breast Cancer Now is urging women to contact their GP right away if they find any new or unusual breast changes, and to continue to attend their breast screening appointments when invited.
The charity has also written a guide for nurses for Nursing in Practice on how to provide support during the Covid-19 pandemic.