Sinead Moriarty: BreastCheck is saving women - don't dare cut this vital lifeline
Published 19/12/2013 | 02:30
Survival rates are on the rise and will continue to rise
It will not be a happy Christmas for the hardworking and dedicated team at BreastCheck (The National Breast Screening Programme).
The Government for National Recovery 2011-2016, agreed by Fine Gael and the Labour Party, includes a commitment to extend the age range for BreastCheck to women aged 65-69.
The expansion of the programme was scheduled to begin in 2014.
Yet, once again the Government has reneged on a promise and this time it really is in one of the most vital sectors of the health service.
It's very simple really -- BreastCheck saves lives by providing free breast X-rays (mammograms) to women aged 50-64. The programme is reducing deaths from breast cancer by finding and treating the disease at an early stage.
There is no one in this country that has not been affected by breast cancer. Be it a mother, sister, aunt or friend, we all know women who have had to undergo lumpectomies, mastectomies, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
But because of the giant steps forward in breast cancer care, a huge number of those women are alive and well today, living full and happy lives.
The reason that many of them are still with us is because of the sterling work done by BreastCheck in persuading women to come in for screening and, if they need it, providing specialist treatment for them.
These positive improvements were set to continue to rise with the promise by the Government to extend the age range for Breastcheck from the current 50-64, to include 65-69.
But it has just been announced that this will not go ahead. The Government feels it is a promise not worth keeping. For some reason, despite the huge success of BreastCheck -- the strides in standards of care, the positive statistics and the improving survival rates -- the Government doesn't think it's worth expanding the service to include older women.
In Ireland, over 2,700 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year and the cumulative risk increases with age, from one in 221 before the age of 40, to one in 14 before the age of 65.
Yet, more than 25,000 women are living following a breast cancer diagnosis. Mortality rates are decreasing and will continue to decrease. Survival rates are on the rise and will continue to rise. This is something to celebrate, to shout from the rooftops and surely, surely to God it is also something to expand and grow . . . apparently not.
Mr James Geraghty, consultant breast surgeon and senior lecturer in general surgery at St Vincent's University in Dublin, says: "The key to the increase in survival rates is that Irish women are becoming more breast aware, are detecting changes to their breasts, seeking advice and treatment at a much earlier stage and availing of breast screening through the BreastCheck programme."
Cancer in Ireland 2013 -- the annual report of the National Cancer Registry -- stated that the commonest cancer in women is breast cancer (32pc of the total). So the Government in its wisdom has decided to pull funding from the most widespread of all the cancers.
One can only wonder how it plans to justify this decision to backtrack on including women from 65-69 in the BreastCheck programme? Are they not worthy enough? Vulnerable enough? Needy enough?
The facts are there before us in black and white -- BreastCheck saves lives. It has made and continues to make a huge difference to women with breast cancer by providing early detection which is key to recovery. So how can we simply allow the Government to sideline these women?
Any health minister who is seriously expected to continue to stand over a system where continuing cuts are putting patients' lives and health at risk surely must consider his position as a matter of principle.
There is only so much that people using our health service can take. It would be fascinating to understand the 'logic' behind this appalling cut which excludes older women from vital screening.
There can be life after breast cancer but the prerequisite is early detection. Apparently the over-65s don't matter enough to this Government. It's a decision that will crush many, disgust some and disappoint everyone.