Almost 12,000 women could be living with undiagnosed breast cancer after screenings were delayed due to the pandemic, a charity has warned.
Breast Cancer Now estimates that around 1.5 million fewer women had breast screenings between March 2020 and May 2021 when compared to pre-pandemic levels, meaning thousands have not been referred for vital tests.
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The charity has said for NHS England to meet its March 2022 target of addressing the shortfall in people starting cancer treatment, an extra 10,000 people would need to have started treatment for breast cancer between May this year and March 2022.
However, it said it is unclear how an already overstretched NHS workforce will be able to meet this demand.
The warning has been echoed by the Royal College of Radiologists which said that breast screening teams are now trying to fit two years’ worth of appointments into one year.
Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive of Breast Cancer Now, said: “A year ago we reported with concern that almost one million women had potentially missed breast screening due to services being paused in the first wave of the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, despite our hardworking NHS staff, screening services running at reduced capacity means that now 1.5 million fewer women have been screened – a staggering 50% increase since services restarted.
“Women with breast cancer are continuing to pay the price due to the impact of the pandemic and, in the worst cases, delayed diagnoses could mean that some women die of this devastating disease.
“Quickly finding and treating those with undiagnosed breast cancer must be a priority, and governments across the UK must urgently ensure there is sufficient investment to do this – these women do not have time to wait.”
The delay to screenings is particularly poignant as this month marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month, with charities aiming to raise awareness of the disease and encourage women to check their body throughout October.
Regular checks and breast screenings are simple ways to help detect cancer early, meaning treatments are more effective.
But who is eligible for breast screening and where can women get checked? Here’s what you need to know.
What age does breast screening start?
Anyone registered with a GP surgery as female will be invited for NHS breast screening every three years between age 50 and 71.
An automatic invitation for your first breast screening will be sent between age 50 and 53. This will usually be sent via a letter in the post.
If you are a trans man, trans woman or are non-binary you may be invited automatically, or you may need to talk to your GP surgery or call the local breast screening service to ask for an appointment.
How does a breast screening work?
During a breast screening, female health specialists called mammographers will use X-rays to check your breasts for signs of cancer.
The appointment involves four breast X-rays, known as mammograms, with two screenings of each breast.
The mammographer will place your breast onto the X-ray machine and it will be squeezed between two pieces of plastic to keep it still while the X-rays are taken.
The process only takes a few minutes for each X-ray and the whole appointment should only last around half an hour.
Regular breast screening is one of the best ways to spot a cancer that is too small to feel or see and it helps to save around 1,300 lives each year in the UK.
How do I book an appointment?
Information on how to book your breast screening appointment will be outlined in your invitation letter.
You will be asked to book either by phone, email or online.
Alternatively, you may be given a pre-booked appointment that will tell you when and where to go for your screening.
Screenings may be conducted at a breast screening clinic, which is often within a hospital, or at a mobile breast screening unit, such as in a supermarket car park.
You can find your nearest breast screening service by entering your postcode on the NHS website.
If you have not been invited for breast screening by the age of 53, or it has been more than three years since your last appointment, you should contact your local breast screening service.
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