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Lockdowns delay breast cancer diagnoses for more than 100 women


Hawke's Bay woman Helen Jonas is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, which was detected in April.

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Hawke’s Bay woman Helen Jonas is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, which was detected in April.

Helen Jonas is feeling a bit rubbish. Her sweet spot during chemo is the last five or six days in the three-weekly cycle.

But the Hawke’s Bay Department of Conservation ranger had a session last week, so she’s fatigued and foggy.

This “cocktail of poison”, as she describes it, is a necessary evil though, to beat the breast cancer diagnosis she was lumped with six months ago when she went for routine screening.

She was told her cancer was aggressive, so if it wasn’t picked up then, it could have been quite a different story.

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“It was very much like I dodged a bullet by knowing … I found out early enough to do something about it.”

The Breast Cancer Foundation estimates at least 133 New Zealanders have breast cancer and don’t know, due to screening delays caused by lockdowns.

Breast Cancer Foundation NZ chief executive Ah-Leen Rayner says screening programme coverage is the lowest in 10 years.

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Breast Cancer Foundation NZ chief executive Ah-Leen Rayner says screening programme coverage is the lowest in 10 years.

The estimate is based on the average number of women who would have been diagnosed during the latest Covid-19 lockdowns. As Auckland’s stay-at-home orders drag on, this list is only growing, the Foundation says.

The screening target is 70 per cent of eligible, but last year that fell to 66 per cent, then 64 per cent this year.

Chief executive Ah-Leen Rayner said it was an alarming trend that meant coverage was the lowest in a decade.

It was even worse for Māori – with coverage at 58 per cent, and 62 per cent for Pasifika women, while younger women were also disproportionately affected.

Helen Jonas with her to Weimaraners, Bree (left) and Meg at her home in Hawke's Bay on Gumboot Friday.

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Helen Jonas with her to Weimaraners, Bree (left) and Meg at her home in Hawke’s Bay on Gumboot Friday.

Under alert level 3, screening was at about 70 per cent of normal capacity due to physical distancing rules, Rayner said.

Amid concerns for these women, the foundation has launched a campaign to “find the missing women” alongside a petition to Parliament to better resource screening and enable it to happen under future level 4 lockdowns.

The petition calls for breast screening participation to be included in new health system indicators, investment to increase screening coverage, and funding to clear the backlog within six months.

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Tracy Hickman found running helped her “feel normal” when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer.

Wellington b​​​​​reast surgeon Dr Alex Brown said clincians were all working hard to minimise delays but extra resourcing would help.

“It is challenging to catch up and comes down to resourcing and the availability of equipment,” Brown, who made time for an interview between surgeries, said.

He said the backlog for breast cancer surgeries at his hospital from the latest lockdown had been cleared, but had concerns for those who were awaiting screening.

“The whole system is going to be pushed back, so we need a period of increased capacity to get over the hump.”

Evidence on delays to treatment after a breast cancer diagnosis showed there could be worse outcomes, he said.

He encouraged woman to sign up for the screening programme when they turned 45.

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