Up to 9,000 cases of breast cancer may have been missed because of the suspension of screening services during the coronavirus pandemic, a charity has warned.
Breast Cancer Now estimates that almost one million women missed their mammograms due to screening programmes being paused as the country went into lockdown in March.
Services were halted in a bid to reduce the risk of coronavirus spreading and free up medics to focus on caring for people with the virus.
It came as leaked data revealed that more than 6,000 patients referred to cancer services have been left waiting more than three months to be seen.
The figures, seen by Health Service Journal, show that, by mid-September, 6,400 people had been waiting more than 104 days after referral for tests, test results or treatment for all types of cancer.
The NHS is battling a backlog of cases that were not seen during lockdown, with more than 10,000 people enduring such waits the month before, the data shows.
Research by Breast Cancer Now suggests around 8,600 women may now be living with undetected breast cancer which would normally have been picked up by screening.
Baroness Delyth Morgan, the organisation’s chief executive, said the findings were “of grave concern”. She said services such as screening must not be put on hold again as the NHS responds to a second wave of Covid-19.
“That nearly one million women across the UK were caught up in the backlog waiting for breast screening is cause for grave concern as we know that around 8,600 of these women could have been living with undetected breast cancer,” she added.
Mammograms “are a key tool in the early detection of breast cancer, which is critical to stopping women dying from the disease,” Baroness Morgan said, adding: “We understand that the breast screening programme was paused out of necessity due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, but we must now press play to ensure that all women can access breast screening, and we cannot afford for the programme to be paused again.”
Breast Cancer Now said extra funding and more staff were needed to meet the backlog in demand.
Mary Wilson, consultant breast radiologist at the Nightingale Centre at Wythenshawe Hospital, said: “Screening diagnoses around 19,000 breast cancers a year in England, and there has already been a delay of over four months in the programme.
“To not only maintain pre-pandemic levels of activity, but also do a huge catch up with inadequate workforce levels, is an enormous mountain to climb.”
During the peak of the pandemic, referrals from GPs for suspected cancer fell by as much as 70 per cent.