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Coronavirus: Four women per month missing cancer diagnosis

Exclusive: Measures hit breast screenings


Gareth Kirk of Action Cancer

Gareth Kirk of Action Cancer

Gareth Kirk of Action Cancer

A breast cancer diagnosis is being missed in at least four Northern Ireland women every month during the coronavirus lockdown.

Concerns are rising over the number of people across Northern Ireland whose lives are at risk as a result of the suspension of vital screening programmes.

They were halted by health officials as they prepared for a spike in the number of critically ill patients during the Covid-19 pandemic.

NHS screening for abdominal aortic aneurysm, breast, bowel and cervical cancer and potential eyesight complications in people with diabetes was paused three weeks ago, with a warning that the suspension is likely to remain in place for at least three months.

It comes as it has emerged that the number of red flag referrals have dropped significantly as people avoid going to the doctor, while at the same time, cancer treatments and surgeries have also been significantly scaled back.

Now a leading cancer charity, which has also been forced to halt its screening programmes, has issued a stark warning over its finances.

Action Cancer has said its services are "facing an unprecedented and critical threat" as donations, described as "the lifeblood of the services" have "reduced to a trickle". The charity ordinarily provides 800 free breast cancer screenings to women between 40 and 49 and over the age of 70 every month in Northern Ireland.

With a detection rate of six cancers for every 1,000 screenings, Action Cancer has said four women in Northern Ireland will have their cancer undetected for each month that the coronavirus crisis continues.

"The current situation is totally unprecedented and is having a negative impact across all aspects of life, including for cancer patients," said Gareth Kirk, Action Cancer CEO.

"The focus is absolutely necessarily, for now, on what is the overriding priority - as a society, managing our way through the Covid-19 crisis. The shining light is the fact that NHS staff are, every hour of every day, doing their upmost to both protect and save lives.

"In these difficult times, the right people are making some complex decisions, and we entrust that the correct clinical decisions are being made for the individuals concerned.

"Unfortunately, the longer the current situation remains, cancers, particularly through screening programmes, are not being detected.

"This will have an impact on treatment paths and on the physical and psychological recovery for each individual.

"Therefore, we anticipate demand for both our breast screening and therapeutic support services to be overwhelming."

Mr Kirk said, given the fact that the health service has not reached capacity during the current surge, it is hoped normal cancer services will be able to resume as soon as possible.

"One in two people will have a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime," he continued.

"Action Cancer's mission, as a local charity, is to save lives and support people."

÷ Action Cancer is appealing for financial support, either through donations or the UK-wide 2.6 fundraising challenge.

To find out how to donate to the charity, log on to

Belfast Telegraph