Following a year-long inquiry, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Breast Cancer has launched its report on geographical inequalities in breast cancer.
Although we know that overall outcomes for breast cancer patients are good and have improved over recent years compared to other cancers, the inquiry found that breast cancer treatment, care and support varies across the country. In particular, where a woman lives may influence her access to medicines and services to support her fertility, recovery and mental health.
Lauren, a primary breast cancer patient from London, explained:
“When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 31 with barely any boobs, I thought they were having a laugh. But they weren't. I had a grade 3 cancerous tumour in my breast that had set up residence without consent and sent my world into a tail spin.
“The physical impact of cancer treatment was terrifying, but I was in no way prepared for the emotional upheaval I was about to face. As somebody who had always been life and soul of the party I began to feel completely isolated and lonely, no longer able to be the person I knew myself to be. I lost my sense of self and my confidence. I didn't look like me or feel like me and I felt a gaping distance between myself and my peers. My priorities and capabilities had changed and my friends just didn't 'get it'.
“Luckily I had the option of counselling at my hospital, which provided no end of support when I slipped into distress and anxiety. It also put the skills I acquired from previous CBT sessions to good use, which is something I think should be offered to patients at the point of diagnosis. I hands down would not have handled my cancer treatment without them.
“As a young adult dealing with cancer, my priorities were different to those raised in the literature provided. Whilst most are preparing you to tell the children, my concern was when can I have a glass of prosecco?! The anxiety around recovery is tough and it's a constant battle to know what you're doing right or wrong. I'm always anxious that I'm not doing enough for my body.
“The recovery process is long and complicated, one which I feel isn't as supported as it should be in terms of psychological care. Access tends to be extremely limited post-treatment and it feels as though all the support just drops off a cliff edge.
“What's difficult is to know when you're going to have a 'wobble'. Some days you may be feeling a little lost, but emotions are completely manageable. Others you're crippled with anxiety and feeling low and yet there is no service to support in these moments. It's not beneficial booking onto a course of counselling for three months’ time when what you need is some support to get you through today. It's also an impractical drain on resources. What's needed is the option for instant support and conversation as required.
“I believe I am fairly resilient and proactive in seeking out mental health support. Others may not be as forthcoming or confident in doing so and I believe it's those people who truly need a steer to access psychological support...”
What can be done?
The APPG on Breast Cancer recommends that NHS England works with local NHS bodies so that all women with breast cancer can access the treatment and care they could benefit from, at a price the NHS can afford. This includes medicines, measures to preserve patients’ fertility, appropriate breast reconstruction services and psychological support.
How can you help?
You can contact your MP now and ask them to write to the local bodies responsible for publishing a workforce plan for your area.