5 October 2021

The number of women in the UK who have not had vital NHS breast screening, which can stop people dying from breast cancer, has risen by an estimated 50% - to nearly 1.5 million women - since services resumed, the leading UK breast cancer charity warns during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  

Breast Cancer Now reveals an alarming increase of around half a million women who haven’t been screened since services restarted in summer 2020, estimating that around 1,480,000 fewer women in the UK had breast screening between March 2020 and May 2021, compared to pre-pandemic levels.1 This comes a year after the charity reported that almost one million women had missed breast screening due to COVID-19 seeing services paused.2

According to the charity, nearly 12,000 people in the UK could have been living with undiagnosed breast cancer at the end of May 2021, due to the impact of the pandemic on breast screening services and fewer women being referred to specialists with possible symptoms of the disease since March 2020 – a frightening prospect when early detection can stop people dying from the disease.3

NHS staff are working tirelessly to see as many women as possible at breast screening services and in breast clinics, but increased demand for imaging and diagnostic services threatens to overwhelm a workforce that was already under-resourced and over-stretched prior to the pandemic.

For NHS England to meet their March 2022 target of addressing the shortfall in people starting cancer treatment, an additional 10,000 people would need to start treatment for breast cancer in the 10 months between May 2021 and March 2022 – but it remains unclear how local systems will find the diagnostic and treatment capacity to achieve this ambition.4

Breast Cancer Now is calling on Governments and the NHS across the UK to urgently set out how promised additional investment will be used to ensure all women living with undiagnosed breast cancer are quickly identified and treated, giving them the best chance of survival. Governments across the UK must also invest in a strategic, fully funded long-term plan for the imaging and diagnostic workforce to ensure that prompt breast cancer diagnosis and treatment is guaranteed both now and in the future.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at 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.

“Urgent investment in the chronically understaffed imaging and diagnostic workforce will enable significant headway in tackling the breast screening backlog and help ensure women with possible symptoms see a specialist quickly so that if they have breast cancer it’s diagnosed as soon as possible – only then will women receive the best care and have the best chances of survival.”

Recent data indicates that it will take three to four years for screening services to recover in Wales and Northern Ireland5, and in England £50 million of additional investment has been committed to breast screening to meet national standards and recover backlogs by March 2022.6

Dr Jeanette Dickson, President of The Royal College of Radiologists, said:

“Breast services, including screening, are working flat-out to make sure patients are seen as quickly as possible, and we cannot urge people enough – if you have any worrying symptoms, please seek help from your GP. If you are given a screening appointment, please take it.

“But breast imaging and treatment services were massively under-resourced even before the pandemic hit. Now, screening teams are trying to fit two years’ worth of appointments into one to catch up with a backlog of millions, while struggling with long-standing staff shortages and woefully substandard facilities, as well as slower working due to covid restrictions.

“If the Government is serious about improving breast cancer outcomes and tackling the backlog then in the short-term it has to continue investing in scanners and IT connectivity, as well as push through stalled service improvements. But ultimately, we cannot get away from the need to invest in people. The NHS needs more imaging and oncology staff to ensure future breast cancer patients get the care they deserve.”

-ENDS-

For further information or to arrange an interview with a case study or a spokesperson, please contact Breast Cancer Now’s press office at press@breastcancernow.org or on 07436 107 914.

Notes to Editors:

1. Calculated using a combination of data sets:

  • In Scotland and Wales – Calculated using information provided on the number of women normally screened, and the number of women screened since services restarted.
  • In England and Northern Ireland – Calculated using data on the average number of women screened each month, based on performance data for 2018/19 (with some adjustments to account for the fact that the AgeX trial in England stopped recruiting during the pause to services and self-referrals for women aged 71 and over were suspended for several months), the length of time for which services were paused and the fact that services were operating at around 60% capacity when they restarted due to social distancing and infection prevention measures.
  • The figure breaks down across the UK as follows - 1,283,886 in England; 92,660 in Scotland; 58,287 in Wales and 45,252 in Northern Ireland.

2. https://breastcancernow.org/about-us/media/press-releases/almost-one-million-women-in-uk-miss-vital-breast-screening-due-covid-19

3. Calculated using a combination of data sets:

  • The number of people starting their first treatment for breast cancer under the 31 day wait from decision to treat between March 2020 and May 2021 (compared to data from the same months in 2019) in England and Scotland; and based on urgent referrals and screening data in Wales; and estimates of the number of ‘missing’ cancer patients since March 2020 produced by the cancer registry in Northern Ireland.
  • The figure breaks down across the UK as follows – 10,162 in England; 1,067 in Scotland; 620 in Wales; 30 in Northern Ireland.

The number of people that could be living with undiagnosed breast cancer has increased since December 2020, when Breast Cancer Now estimated that nearly 11,000 people in the UK could have been living with undiagnosed breast cancer.

4. NHS England 2021/22 operational planning guidance available here: www.england.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/B0468-nhs-operational-planning-and-contracting-guidance.pdf

5. Update on population-based screening programmes in Wales available here:

https://phw.nhs.wales/about-us/board-and-executive-team/board-committees/committee-meetings/quality-safety-and-improvement-committee/2021-22/16-june-2021/quality-safety-and-improvement-committee-16-june-2021-meeting-papers/3-qsic-160621-screening-recovery-update-screening-qsic/

 Northern Ireland Department of Health, Cancer Recovery Plan 2021/22 available here: www.health-ni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/health/doh-cancer-recovery-plan.pdf

6. NHS England 2021/22 operational planning guidance available here: www.england.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/B0468-nhs-operational-planning-and-contracting-guidance.pdf

There has been no data on breast screening recovery time in Scotland published to date.

Breast Screening

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the UK. The NHS Breast Screening Programme is vital in helping to detect breast cancer at the earliest possible stage, preventing around 1,300 women dying from the disease each year across the UK.

Women registered with a GP are invited for a mammogram between the ages of 50 and 53 every three years until their 71st birthday.

Breast screening, Cancer Research UK, https://about-cancer.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/breast-cancer/getting-diagnosed/screening/breast-screening

While screening comes with some risks to be aware of, Breast Cancer Now encourages all women to attend their appointments when invited.

Signs and symptoms of breast cancer

Common breast cancer signs and symptoms include:

  • a lump or swelling in the breast, upper chest or armpit – you might feel the lump but not see it
  • a change to the skin, such as puckering or dimpling
  • a change in the colour of the breast – the breast may look red or inflamed
  • a change to the nipple, for example it has become pulled in (inverted)
  • rash or crusting around the nipple
  • any unusual liquid (discharge) from either nipple
  • changes in size or shape of the breast

On its own, pain in your breasts is not usually a sign of breast cancer. But look out for pain that’s there all or most of the time.

About Breast Cancer Now

  • Breast Cancer Now is the UK’s first comprehensive breast cancer charity, combining world-class research and life-changing care.
  • Breast Cancer Now’s ambition is that, by 2050, everyone who develops breast cancer will live and be supported to live well.
  • Breast Cancer Now, the research and care charity, launched in October 2019, created by the merger of specialist support and information charity Breast Cancer Care and leading research charity Breast Cancer Now.
  • Visit breastcancernow.org or follow us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram
  • Anyone looking for support or information can call Breast Cancer Now’s free Helpline on 0808 800 6000.