Almost 11,000 people in the UK could live with undiagnosed breast cancer due to the pandemic, a charity warned.
Breast Cancer Now calculates that fewer referrals and less access to treatment combined with interruptions in breast screening programs resulted in 10,700 fewer people diagnosed with breast cancer between March and December 2020 than expected.
The team analyzed a range of data to reach that number, including the number of people starting their first breast cancer treatment, the number of women screened each month, and the length of time that services were suspended.
Although the services have resumed, the charity said they are around 60% busy due to the need for social distancing and infection control.
It warned of an impending “perfect storm” with health workers in imaging and diagnostic services under unprecedented pressure and previously “chronically underserved” due to the pandemic.
Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive Officer of Breast Cancer Now said, “The tragic cost of nearly 11,000 missing breast cancer diagnoses is that, in the worst case scenario, women could die of the disease.
“And looking ahead, while we don’t know all of the implications of the pandemic, we now know that the number of women who come forward could overwhelm our already overloaded workforce in the years to come.
“Women with breast cancer have already paid an unacceptable price because of the pandemic. We just cannot afford it until the UK governments invest in and tackle the cancer worker crisis.
“Only then will we give women the best chance of an early breast cancer diagnosis that we know is critical to their chances of survival.”
During the pandemic, breast examination services across the UK were suspended for various periods of time, including around four months in Scotland and five months in Wales.
While services in England were not officially interrupted, Breast Cancer Now said it was still happening as hospitals turned their attention to the fight against Covid.
Overall, almost 1.2 million fewer women had breast exams in the UK between March and December.
Meanwhile, in England between March and December there was a 90,000 decrease in specialist referrals for patients with possible symptoms of breast cancer.
Overall, the number of patients not diagnosed with breast cancer due to the pandemic was around 8,900 cases in England, 890 in Scotland, 687 in Wales and 248 in Northern Ireland.
Jane Murphy, clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Now, said some women were reluctant to visit their GP or hospitals, or were reluctant to visit their GPs or hospitals, or were reluctant to burden the NHS for fear of getting Covid-19.
“The pandemic has plunged us all into unprecedented times and natural humans will be concerned,” she said.
“But the earlier breast cancer is diagnosed, the better the chances of successful treatment. Therefore, it is important that women continue to have their breasts checked regularly and have any new or unusual changes checked by their general practitioner, and continue to have breast exams when asked.
“The NHS wants people to attend their appointments and report symptoms to their GPs. They have taken steps to keep staff and patients safe.”
Dr. Jeanette Dickson, President of the Royal College of Radiologists, said, “It is important that those patients who have missed screening or have not seen their GP in the past year when they have had possible symptoms, come forward.
“The NHS is open to business, and the sooner we can diagnose cancer, the sooner we can treat it.
“The screening teams are back on track, but the breast imaging services were in a precarious position when they got caught up in the coronavirus pandemic and those sourcing challenges are still there.
“Many chest units have vacancies and there is a shortage of chest radiologists due to retirement.
“The backlog of waiting cases will put even more pressure on the stretched diagnostic teams and cancer teams who are then responsible for adapting and delivering treatment.
“The diagnostic and treatment workforce caring for breast cancer patients urgently needs more investment to ensure our future patients receive the prompt care they deserve.”
An NHS spokeswoman said: “While the vast majority of cancers detected by screening programs are in the very early stages and the clinical impact on patients is extremely small, thousands of invitations are sent out every month and patients should be Register for the screening as soon as possible as you are invited.
“If you feel a lump or a symptom of cancer, please contact us and be examined.”