Breast cancer screening services resumed yesterday but it has emerged it could take three years to screen the 153,000 women currently awaiting mammograms, due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tens of thousands of appointments have been cancelled and while the screening service has resumed it will operate at reduced capacity in a Covid-19 environment.
The HSE, which runs the screening service, said it will prioritise women who have “waited longest” for breast screening and confirmed that it could take up to three years to clear the backlog.
“Around 153,000 people are awaiting invites since screening was paused in March,” a spokesperson for the HSE said.
“Capacity will be reduced due to social distancing and potential staff limitations due to Covid-19,” they said.
“The pause in screening, combined with Covid-19 restrictions, means that it will take us some months to catch up. It is therefore projected that it will take 36 months to complete the current round of breast screening,” a spokesperson for the HSE said.
The HSE encouraged women invited for screening to attend their appointment and assured that Covid-19 safety precautions are in place in all clinics and mobile units.
Cancer charities have expressed concern over the backlog and a decision to extend the period at which women are invited for a mammogram from two years to three years.
The Marie Keating Foundation is seeking clarification this week on how quickly the backlog can be managed.
“We’re delighted that the service has resumed after months of being suspended because of Covid-19. The decision to suspend the service was the correct one given what was happening. But we have been campaigning for weeks and months in relation to when the service would resume,” a spokesperson for the Marie Keating Foundation said.
“The concern we do have is over the service’s ability to see as many women as it would have previously. And we know that they won’t be able to. There will be a reduction in the number of women they can see in any given day,” the spokesperson said.
“We have sought a meeting with the national screening service to get clarification on the backlog in appointments and how long it will take to clear it. We’re hoping that a meeting will take place this week.”
The foundation urged women to take up the invitation for screening and for those who are eligible to check the BreastCheck register to ensure they are on it.
The Irish Cancer Society said extending the BreastCheck screening period to every three years was “undesirable” and stressed that Covid-19 was causing backlogs in cancer services generally.
We consider a lengthening of the screening interval to be undesirable from the perspective of those eligible for screening, even if it is a temporary measure
“We consider a lengthening of the screening interval to be undesirable from the perspective of those eligible for screening, even if it is a temporary measure,” a spokesperson for the Irish Cancer Society said.
“However, it is not just screening services that are affected by Covid. The entire cancer system is now grappling with decreased capacity, backlogs and the pre-existing challenges within cancer services. There will be huge challenges in restoring services so they can meet patient demand, but these must be overcome to avoid cancer becoming the Forgotten C,” they said.
The breast screening service was the last cancer screening programme to resume after the Covid-19 pause, with programmes to screen for bowel and cervical cancers resuming much earlier.
The BreastCheck screening service provides mammograms to women, aged between 50 and 69, to screen and pick up potential cancers as early as possible.
Every year more than 3,000 women are given a breast cancer diagnosis in Ireland.
To date, BreastCheck has detected over 12,200 cancers having provided around two million mammograms to women eligible under the screening programme.