In the quiet of lockdown, like many, I caught up on life admin, ticking off the things I never find the time for in the busyness of ‘normal life’. I had a clear out, chatted to people for longer than a text and finally got round to acknowledging that small lump and rash I’d been ignoring on my left breast. Amid the new silence, it niggled with the sound of ringing alarm bells.
I gave the doctor a call. They weren’t seeing people face-to-face unless they had to and referred me straight to the breast clinic. A few days later, I received a letter with an appointment in two weeks. I was anxious about visiting the hospital but a strict no-mask-no-entry policy, temperature checks and sanitiser at the door made me feel at ease. The doctor took all of 30 seconds to feel my breast, look at the rash and tell me it was fine. But they offered me a mammogram as I’m over 40. Off I skipped, hoping to be in and out, mind at complete rest.
In fact, the mammogram revealed calcifications that can only be picked up under X-ray. They can be markers of cancer. I also had a lesion behind my left nipple. I heard some mumblings about a second opinion. My heart went into panic mode, racing me to a sweat. After the second, more thorough, mammogram, the consultant explained she wasn’t sure if it was cancerous so I’d need a biopsy the following day. The week’s wait for the results was the worst of my life. I had moments of calm followed by some of utter terror. Either way, I was thankful I’d made the call.
During the peak of the pandemic, referrals from GPs for suspected cancer fell by as much as 70 per cent. This was said to be largely in part due to the suspension of some health services – to ease the NHS burden and free up doctors to cope with Covid. But it was also coupled with people’s fears of catching the virus if they went to the GP or hospital, and concerns about taking up doctors’ valuable time.
Startling figures this week from charity Breast Cancer Now estimate that nearly one million women in the UK may have missed potentially lifesaving screening due to the pandemic – meaning there is now a huge backlog – while around 8,600 of them could be living with undetected breast cancer. But, while Cancer Research UK revealed that 2.4 million people were waiting longer for cancer treatment because of the pandemic, all charities have continually advised people to seek medical attention if concerned.
In the end, my results turned out to be benign and I was discharged. But for other women, that lockdown phone call wasn’t only life-changing but life-saving.
Justine Bishop, 36, from Birmingham found a lump on the side of her breast during lockdown. When it didn’t disappear she eventually tried to contact her GP for advice. This took some persistence – she struggled to get through and didn’t receive the promised call backs. It took a week to get just a telephone consultation, weeks during which many people would have simply given up trying. Justine was referred to the hospital breast clinic who later confirmed she had early stage breast cancer.
“I had heard about treatments being delayed and, as I was at an early stage, I thought it would be months before I could get treatment. However, I was booked in for surgery the following week,” she says. At her recent check-up, she was told the cancer has been successfully removed. “It definitely confirmed that I had done the right thing getting it checked out and persisting with the GP appointment.”
In July, Gina, 31, a mother of five from Shropshire, contacted her doctor after noticing the sudden appearance of a lump and dent on her breast. She has a family history of breast cancer so was immediately referred for further investigation. Concerned about the dent, the consultant sent her for an ultrasound and did a biopsy there and then, waiting 10 days for the results. She was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, a very aggressive form. “Mine hadn’t spread to lymph nodes because I’d acted so quickly but if I had left it any longer, it would have been a completely different outcome”, she explains.
Of course, it’s not just breast cancer that women have been diagnosed with during the coronavirus crisis. In April, Alice Blanchard, 42, from Devon, found a very small, pearly lump near her eye. She felt uncomfortable contacting the doctor in the middle of the pandemic with what she thought was just a minor issue. But, with the lump growing rapidly to the size of a pea, she finally made the call. Her doctor asked her to take some photos and email them to a skin specialist within the practice. She was referred to the skin department, but what was meant to be a straightforward consultation turned into an immediate biopsy. Within days a letter came through confirming it was basal cell carcinoma – a type of skin cancer. Weeks later, she had the cancer removed under general anaesthetic, in and out within five hours.
Given the threat of a second lockdown, it’s imperative women know they can still seek help. In an article in April, at the height of the pandemic, Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, urged people to contact their GPs, stating: “Surgeries are not overwhelmed. If you do not come forward, you are not in the system for priority treatment when clinics reopen.”
The hope this time is, of course, that none of them will shut up shop.