Yet in finding the lump herself, Daniels was one of the lucky ones. This week, new figures from Breast Cancer Now suggest as many as 9,000 cases of the disease may have been missed this year after screening services were halted during the coronavirus pandemic. The charity estimates that almost a million women have missed their mammograms since lockdown was imposed in March – with dire consequences for a sizeable minority.
The aim of suspending routine screening was to reduce the spread of Covid-19 and free up doctors to tackle it. But while well intentioned, the decision has had heartbreaking consequences for those suffering from other conditions.
For every woman like Daniels, who managed to get a diagnosis, there will be many more unaware they have a problem.
“I did ask the surgeon what would have happened if I’d ignored [the lump] and she said it would have grown,” she says. “I sympathise with why [the suspension of screening] had to happen. I understand it was [the result of] lots of knee-jerk reactions to keeping people safe. I was never angry about it, but I was frustrated because now there’s a backlog. How many women are out there like me, wandering around and not knowing?”
Since her diagnosis, Daniels has undergone a bilateral lumpectomy, had lymph nodes removed for a biopsy (though fortunately it turned out the cancer hadn’t spread), and had surgery to remove potentially cancerous cells. In two weeks’ time, she will begin a course of radiotherapy.
Fall in assessments
But others have not received treatment in such a timely manner. The pandemic has seen a significant fall in the number of patients with any type of cancer being assessed and treated.
Figures for England show that the number being assessed by a cancer doctor after referral dropped by 60 per cent in April, compared with the same month last year. The number of patients starting treatment dropped 20 per cent below the 2019 number.
For many, the results will be devastating. Previous research by Breast Cancer Now found that women with incurable breast cancer may have their lives shortened as a result of not being able to undergo chemotherapy, have diagnostic scans to monitor their progress or take part in trials.
A paper published in The Lancet medical journal in July estimated that there would be a 7.9 to 9.6 per cent increase in the number of deaths due to breast cancer in England up to year five after diagnosis, due to Covid-related delays.
Michelle Bailey, 37, is among those whose treatment was disrupted by the pandemic. After being diagnosed with fast-growing and invasive breast cancer at the start of March, she was told she would need a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. A few weeks later, with hospitals across Britain in the grip of the crisis, things completely changed.
“I was told ‘There’s been disruption to your treatment plan’,” says the mother of one from Stockport, Greater Manchester. “Instead, I would need a single mastectomy. It was a lot to take in. I’d prepared myself and talked to my son about it. To go back and be told ‘We can’t do that now,’ was a shock. But I had no choice. It’s left me a bit bitter. I don’t think I was fully prepared mentally for the operation.”