21 October 2022

Breast cancer patients will be asked to share their experiences of the pandemic with Belfast scientists as part of a new research project funded by Breast Cancer Now.

The charity has awarded £229,000 to a team led by Professor Anna Gavin at Queen’s University Belfast to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer with the aim of improving care.

The two-part study will see researchers analyse the anonymised data of more than 2,000 people in Northern Ireland who were diagnosed with breast cancer between April and December 2020 (the first lockdowns) or in 2018 (the last full year in which patients will have completed their treatment before the pandemic). They will examine whether there are differences in how quickly they were diagnosed, how advanced the cancer was and the type of treatment they received.

And to ensure the voices of patients are central to the research, women and men living with breast cancer during the pandemic from across the UK and Ireland will be invited to take part in an online survey next year.

 Some of the participants will then be asked to be interviewed about their experiences.

The Belfast team’s research will build on existing evidence to provide further insight about how the pandemic has affected cancer care.

The breast cancer screening programmes in Northern Ireland, as well as England, Scotland and Wales were suspended for several months in 2020 and operated at a reduced capacity when they re-opened.

The most recent cancer waiting times data for Northern Ireland*, shows that key targets around the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer are still being missed as clinical services recover.

In June 2022, just 58% of people with an urgent GP referral for suspected breast cancer saw a specialist within two weeks - a target that should be met by all patients. In the same period, only 83% of people started breast cancer treatment within 62 days of referral – compared with a target of 95%.

The latest NHS England waiting time data shows that in August there were still an estimated 7,617 women in England living with undiagnosed breast cancer** due to the impact of COVID-19.

Professor Gavin said: “Our research will shine a light on the unique challenges specifically faced by thousands of breast cancer patients in Northern Ireland during the pandemic and the first COVID-19 lockdowns. By also drawing on the experiences of women and men across the UK and Ireland we’ll ensure the voice of the wider patient community is at the heart of our work. 

“It’s vital we understand the longer-term impact of the service disruption on people with breast cancer so positive changes can be made for the future and it’s thanks to Breast Cancer Now we’re able to do this.”

When the pandemic hit, Breast Cancer Now was concerned about how it would impact its ability to support research but, thanks to the incredible generosity of its supporters, the charity is funding 11 new research projects in 2022.

Dr Simon Vincent, Breast Cancer Now’s Director of Research, Support and Influencing said: “Waiting for a breast cancer diagnosis and beginning treatment are challenging experiences at any time. We already know that people faced delays and additional burdens because of the pandemic but it’s important we understand its full impact.

“Building an accurate and detailed picture of the scale of the disruption and how this affected individual patients will help policymakers, the health and social care system and organisations such as Breast Cancer Now continue to shape their future work.

“The research will also reveal key lessons for the management of any future health emergency so we can minimise service disruption and the additional anxiety this causes patients.”

Yvonne Doran, 39, from Derry, County Londonderry, was diagnosed with grade three aggressive breast cancer when she was 26 weeks pregnant with her first child Maggie, now two, in the summer of 2020.

She said: “I felt a lump in my breast in July 2020 and I put off contacting the GP for a couple of weeks because I thought it would be difficult getting an appointment due to COVID. They referred me to the local breast clinic and because of the restrictions, I was alone when I was told the news.

“The first thing I asked was if the baby was okay and then for the survival rates. I was sitting there crying, thinking I was about to have my first baby and I might not even be here for her. That was one of the hardest days.

“I had to have a lot of my ante-natal care and cancer treatment alone which was very upsetting at times, but I know that I was more fortunate than some women who had their diagnosis delayed, or treatment interrupted. Research like this is so important to understand how patients like me were affected by the pandemic and help ensure our experiences are learnt from.”

The Breast Cancer Now website will be updated with further information about the survey and how to contribute, once it is live.

Breast Cancer Now is here for anyone affected by breast cancer, providing support for today and hope for the future. Find out more at breastcancernow.org

ENDS

For more information or to arrange an interview please contact the Breast Cancer Now press office at press@breastcancernow.org or call 07436 107914.

Notes to editors:

*https://datavis.nisra.gov.uk/health/ni-cancer-waiting-times-apr-jun-22.html

**The number of people starting their first treatment for breast cancer under the 31 day wait from decision to treat between March 2020 and August 2022 (compared to data from the same months in 2019/20) in England. Calculated using Monthly Provider Based Data and Summaries, Cancer Waiting Times, NHS England.

Latest figures for Scotland:

Between April – June 2022, 88% of breast cancer patients started treatment within 62 days of the receipt of an urgent suspected cancer referral (against a target of 95%)

Latest figures for Wales:

In the month of July 2022, 65% of breast cancer patients started treatment within 62 days of referral (against a target of 80%)

A Breast Cancer Now report about the impact of the pandemic on breast cancer services across the UK published in September 2020 highlighted changes to treatment including the suspension of breast reconstruction for several months and changes to radiotherapy.