Nearly 11,000 women could be living with undiagnosed breast cancer following last year’s drive to “protect the NHS”, new analysis reveals.
A reluctance to burden the health service during the pandemic’s first wave, coupled with a drop in GP referrals and suspensions of screening programmes is wreaking a “tragic cost”, experts said.
Research by the charity Breast Cancer Now found there were 10,700 fewer people diagnosed with breast cancer across the UK between March and December last year.
The team analysed a range of data to reach the figure, including the number of people starting their first treatment for breast cancer, the number of women screened each month and the length of time for which services were paused.
During the first wave of the pandemic, breast screening services were paused for different amounts of time across the UK, including around four months in Scotland and five months in Wales.
While services were not officially paused in England, Breast Cancer Now said this still happened because hospitals turned their attention to fighting Covid.
Overall, it said nearly 1.2 million fewer women in the UK underwent breast screening between March and December.
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.
Even though services have resumed, the charity said they are operating at around 60 per cent capacity due to the need for social distancing and infection control.
The charity on Tuesday warned of a forthcoming "perfect storm", with health workers in imaging and diagnostic services under unprecedented pressure due to the pandemic, having already been "chronically under-resourced" beforehand.
Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive of 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.”
Overall, it put the number of patients undiagnosed with breast cancer due to the pandemic at 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 had been reluctant to visit their GP or hospitals for fear of catching Covid-19, or did not want to burden the NHS.
"The pandemic has thrown us all into unprecedented times and it's natural people will have concerns," she said.
"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."
An NHS spokesperson said: "While the vast majority of cancers detected through screening programmes are at a very early stage and so the clinical impact on patients is extremely low, thousands of invitations are being sent every month and people should book in for screening as soon as they are invited.
"If you feel a lump or any cancer symptom, please come forward and get checked."