“Had I waited one month, it could have been a different story”
For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is urging women in West Sussex to check their breasts regularly, report any unusual symptoms to their GP and attend routine breast screening appointments in COVID-safe clinics.
Last year, the symptomatic breast service at Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust received 5,468 new referrals, which is a 2.6% growth on the year before, and a total of 807 cancers were diagnosed and treated.
However, since Covid-19, the Trust has seen a significant reduction in referrals. Last month, there was a 20% reduction compared to the same time last year.
Consultant Oncoplastic Breast Surgeon, Mr Dibendu Betal, said: “It is concerning that potentially hundreds of patients are not reporting symptoms to their GPs, which could be risking delay in diagnosis. We run a ‘one-stop’ clinic that involves having a breast examination, breast imaging and tissue biopsy, known as triple-assessment, for early and rapid detection of breast cancer giving the best chance of treating and surviving cancer.”
Worthing resident and mum of two, Catherine Steele, 54, was diagnosed with breast cancer during the pandemic period. She said: “I felt a large lump in my breast a day before my daughter’s 21st birthday. It was a huge shock, as I hadn’t felt it there the last time I checked. I didn’t want to ruin her day, so I kept it to myself and saw my GP straight away, who referred me to the breast clinic at Worthing hospital.
“On my daughter’s birthday, I snuck away and after a number of scans and biopsies, was told I had breast cancer. It was hard hitting. My mind went to all sorts of places. I started planning my own funeral, imagining not being there to see my girls settle down, not being able to help my older relatives.
“I was told it was an aggressive cancer and because it had grown big in a short time, I had a CT scan to see if it had spread, and booked to have surgery.”
Following a mastectomy and removal of nearby lymph nodes, Catherine’s diagnosis was reduced to ‘stage two’. She is now receiving chemotherapy and is hopeful about the future. “Had I waited one month, it could have been a different story,” she said.
Catherine, who works as a theatre nurse at the Trust, cared for Covid-19 patients in the hospital’s ITU department during the pandemic’s peak. “I was very familiar with the measures in place to ensure safety during Covid-19, so I knew it was safe and important I had my symptoms checked out.”
“The whole multidisciplinary team have been absolutely fabulous. I have felt thoroughly supported and the care has been exceptional,” she added.
I was very familiar with the measures in place to ensure safety during Covid-19
Covid-19 has also impacted the number of women attending their invitation for screening. The breast centre at Worthing hospital runs the West Sussex Breast Screening Service, and is open to 125,000 women across the county over a three year period.
Since screening resumed following a pause imposed by Covid-19, almost one in two women in West Sussex are not accepting their invitation to attend.
Dr Olga Strukowska, Consultant Radiologist and Director of West Sussex Breast Screening Service, said: “It is troubling that potentially fewer women than anticipated are responding to their invitation to attend screening. Screening helps finds breast cancers at an early stage when they are too small to see or feel. The scan is quick and simple and early detection of cancer may often mean simpler and more successful treatment.
“We have four mobile units that travel to 12 locations across West Sussex to make it as easy as possible for women to have these tests. The units have recently been refurbished to be Covid-safe, including installing a one way system and new easy-to-clean laminate flooring.”