Thousands of calls have been made to a helpline after it was revealed that women may have had their lives cut short due to failures in breast cancer screening.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt revealed on Wednesday that 450,000 women aged 68 to 71 had not been invited to their final routine screening.
An independent review has been launched into the computer error, which was discovered in January but dates back to 2009.
Between 135 and 270 women could have had their lives shortened as a result of the mistake, Mr Hunt said.
A dedicated helpline for those who may be affected had received around 8,000 calls by Thursday evening, according to Public Health England (PHE), which oversees the screening programme.
Some women aged between 70 and 79 are being offered the opportunity for a breast screen. This is because some women did not receive an invitation for a final screen, as part of the routine NHS Breast Screening Programme. Find out more here: https://t.co/Ka0ZWZDv3f pic.twitter.com/5QPf5EJa3p— NHS (@NHSuk) May 2, 2018
Charity Breast Cancer Care said it had also seen a surge in calls to its own helpline, with many women feeling confused and angry.
Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at Breast Cancer Now, described the mistake as a “colossal systemic failure”.
Women in England between the ages of 50 and 70 are currently automatically invited for breast cancer screening every three years.
Of those who missed invitations, 309,000 are estimated to still be alive and all those living in the UK who are registered with a GP will be contacted before the end of May.
All women who were not sent an invitation for their final screening will be given the opportunity to have a new appointment.
Somebody somewhere along the line has made a massive error - we are talking 450,000 letters that should have gone outBrian Gough, widower
However Mr Hunt said “administrative incompetence” meant some families may have lost, or may be about to lose, a loved one to cancer.
Women and the families of those who may have been affected by the failures have demanded answers over the failures.
Widower Brian Gough said his wife Trixie did not receive a letter inviting her to go for a screening in 2009.
A scan in October 2010 revealed she had stage-three breast cancer.
The 77-year-old, from Norfolk, told the Press Association he was “shell-shocked” by the news.
“There has always got to be some blame, these things don’t just happen … it is never the computer that goes wrong, it is the person that put the information in or took it out,” he said.
“Somebody somewhere along the line has made a massive error – we are talking 450,000 letters that should have gone out.”
Mr Gough’s wife missed the wedding of her grandson as she was too ill to attend, and died just before her granddaughter’s nuptials.
“All of that she missed because she didn’t get diagnosed and she didn’t know anything about it until a year too late,” he said.
Former NHS nurse Patricia Minchin said she was not offered a screening in 2013 when she turned 70, and is now battling breast cancer.
The cancer has also spread to other parts of her body.
In light of today's breast screening announcement, visit our information pages to help decide if screening is right for you. Or you can call our free Helpline on 0808 800 6000, open at 9am tomorrow.https://t.co/fdoYfNDclV— Breast Cancer Now (@BreastCancerNow) May 2, 2018
The 75-year-old from Bushey, Hertfordshire, told The Telegraph: “I feel so disappointed. I don’t know if I’m going to survive.
“I would like an explanation from somebody why this happened, why I didn’t get a recall.
“Why didn’t they pick up that I hadn’t had a mammogram? They obviously knew about it for some time and they shouldn’t have covered it up for so long.”
Dr Emma Pennery, clinical director at Breast Cancer Care, said: “After this appalling blunder, Breast Cancer Care’s helpline is set to receive four times its usual number of calls by the end of the day.
“This surge highlights the gravity of the situation and the sheer number of people it has impacted.
“The women contacting us are feeling angry, confused and want answers. Many are anxiously playing a waiting game until the letters arrive, not knowing if they’ve been affected.
“Others are extremely worried about when their letters will arrive and how long it will take to get screened.”
The official helpline for those who think they may be affected is 0800 169 2692.