Nearly 11,000 people in the UK could be living with breast cancer that has not yet been diagnosed due to disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the leading UK breast cancer charity reveals.
Breast Cancer Now estimates that around 10,7001 fewer people across the UK were diagnosed with breast cancer between March and December 2020 as a direct result of the impacts of the pandemic.
And the charity warns that in the worst cases, some women could die as a result of delayed diagnoses.
Breast cancer services faced significant disruption in 2020 due to the pandemic.
With the NHS breast screening programme being paused and appointments now running at a reduced rate due to safety measures, the charity also says that nearly 1.2 million fewer women had breast screening between March and December 2020.2
Meanwhile, there was a 90,000 drop in referrals to a specialist for patients with possible symptoms of breast cancer in England between March and December 2020,3 with women telling the charity they were reluctant to attend medical appointments for fear of catching COVID-19, and not wanting to further burden the NHS.
It’s also been reported that some GPs have been reluctant to risk sending their patients to the local hospital for fear of COVID-19 infection.4
The almost 11,000 people who could be living with undiagnosed breast cancer personify the toll the pandemic has already taken on the disease.
And looking forwards, the charity warns of a ‘perfect storm’ - the imaging and diagnostic workforce is under unprecedented pressure due to the pandemic, having already been chronically under-resourced prior to this, and is in grave danger of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the task moving forward.
This is why the charity is calling on UK governments to invest long-term and take a strategic approach to addressing the rapidly growing crisis facing the cancer workforce now, to give everyone the best possible chance of early diagnosis.
Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Now, said:
“The tragic cost of almost 11,000 missing breast cancer diagnoses is that in the worst cases, women could die from the disease.
"And 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.”
The charity is also 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.
These steps remain as crucial as ever to women looking after their health during the pandemic.
Jane Murphy, Clinical Nurse Specialist at Breast Cancer Now, said:
“We hear first-hand from women who are worried about the risk of COVID-19 so are reluctant to attend medical appointments, and who don’t want to bother their GP during the pandemic.
“The pandemic has thrown us all into unprecedented times and it’s natural people will have concerns.
"But 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.”
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.
"The diagnostic and treatment workforce caring for breast cancer patients desperately needs more investment to ensure our future patients get the speedy care they deserve.”
Notes to Editors
- Calculated using a combination of data sets: the number of people starting their first treatment for breast cancer under the 31-day wait between March and December 2020 (compared to data from the same months in 2019) in England and Scotland. And based on urgent referrals and screening data in Wales and Northern Ireland. The number of fewer breast cancer diagnoses between March and December 2020 breaks down across the UK as follows - England – 8900; Scotland – 890; Wales – 687; Northern Ireland – 248.
- 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 different periods across the UK); the length of time for which services were paused, and the fact that services have been operating at around 60% capacity since they restarted due to social distancing and infection prevention measures.
- Calculated using Monthly Provider Based Data and Summaries, Cancer Waiting Times, NHS England.
- How COVID-19 is impacting cancer services in the UK - Cancer Research UK - Science blog.
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. Each year more than 2 million women have breast cancer screening in 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.
For more information
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, like 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 or on Facebook.
- Anyone looking for support or information can call Breast Cancer Now’s free Helpline on 0808 800 6000.