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Breast cancer setback

Board waiting list of 7,000 may take two years to clear

By Claire McNeilly

Efforts to fight breast cancer - Northern Ireland's number one 'ladykiller' - today suffered a major setback after it emerged that 7,000 people are on a waiting list to be screened in just one health board - and the Department of Health has admitted it could take up to two years to clear the current backlog.

The shocking statistics came to light through a question tabled to the Minister for Health by North Down Assembly member Leslie Cree.

Michael McGimpsey confirmed that of the 26,400 women in total in the Eastern Board area who are eligible for screening between August 1, 2007 and July 31, 2008, a staggering 7,000 have not yet availed of the potentially life saving service.

"The Eastern Board currently screens 419 women per week and plans to increase this to 555 per week from September," said Mr McGimpsey.

"This will reduce the backlog to approximately 3,600 by July 31, 2008 and it is anticipated that it will be cleared by the end of July 2009.

"The reduction in the backlog requires careful management to ensure that the situation does not recur and my Department is monitoring the situation closely."

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph today, a spokesman for the Eastern Board admitted that the backlog was a matter of concern.

"We accept that the waiting time needs to be shortened and we will be putting our time and efforts into reducing it," said Ivan Maginnis.

"Any board and any trust would be concerned about any kind of prolonged wait. Obviously we would wish to see any waiting times being as short as possible and work will be ongoing among the boards and trusts to try and achieve that."

Dr Anna Gavin, head of the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry, said that part of the problem was that some women are not coming forward for their appointments.

And she called on all women to avail of the breast screening service when invited.

"If a woman does get an invitation to be screened, she should take it because if she doesn't, then they will invite her again and I'm sure some of the backlog is caused by repeat appointments," she said.

Patricia McPeake, the Castledawson woman who led a battle for early breast cancer sufferers to be given Herceptin, said she was astounded by the news.

"It shocks me to hear that so many women are waiting for breast screening," said the 46-year-old.

"The earlier you get detected the better your chances of survival. I had no idea I had cancer until I went and then it was done so quickly.

"I would tell all women to go and get checked out. Anyone who doesn't is being silly. They should know that ultimately it could save their life."

Dr Gavin said while there had been a rise in the number of cases of breast cancer diagnosed, there had also been a significant decrease in the number of deaths caused by the disease.

She added that while breast cancer claims more women's lives than any other disease in Northern Ireland, screening is estimated to prevent around 30 deaths each year.

"Over the last 11 years there had been an annual increase of 1.4% in the number of women being diagnosed with breast cancer," said Dr Gavin.

"In the last three years where the most recent figures are available, between 2000?2004, there were, on average, 996 new cases diagnosed each year.

"For the same period there were on average 297 deaths each year. That has dropped by 2.6% over the 11-year period, so that has fallen quite markedly.

Moving to calm fears of a crisis, Dr Gavin said: "It sounds like a lot of women, but the delay really only represents a four to five- month backlog. "

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