Tuesday, 07 June 2022 11:55

Concerns over rural breast cancer screening

Written by  Jessica Marshall
Rural Women New Zealand health spokesperson Sandra Matthews. Rural Women New Zealand health spokesperson Sandra Matthews.

Women in rural New Zealand could be at risk of missing a vital breast cancer diagnosis due to the impacts of Covid-19.

Overall, the Breast Cancer Foundation reports approximately 50,000 women across NZ are overdue for their mammograms due to disruption caused by Covid-19 lockdowns.

The charity is asking the Government to invest $15 million of targeted funding to assist Breast Screen Aotearoa – the outfit charged with providing mammograms – in clearing it.

Breast Cancer Foundation chief executive Ah-Leen Rayner told Rural News all breast screenings had been paused due to Covid lockdowns in the past two years, including visits by mobile screening units who service women in rural communities.

“For rural communities, having to wait for the mammogram bus to return to their area or finding the time to reschedule a mammogram has made it harder to keep up with regular screening.”

Rayner says BreastScreen Aotearoa, the national free breast screening programme for women aged 45 to 69, had set up the mobile screening units to give women in rural areas the opportunity to have a mammogram in a location convenient to them.

Rural Women New Zealand (RWNZ) health spokesperson Sandra Matthews says the organisation is concerned about long wait times for all women.

“However, the delay can be problematic for rural women because of distance,” Matthews told Rural News.

She says she hopes that when the new health system comes, it will have more resources for women’s health and rural health.

“This would ensure that important services such as breast cancer screening and research and screening for gynaecological cancers are fully resourced.”

A Ministry of Health spokesperson told Rural News that across the country, there was a decrease in breast screening coverage nationally due to the impacts of the pandemic.

The spokesperson says that funding of $10 million to support Covid- 19 recovery was included in the 2021 Budget but the biggest challenge for the National Screening Unit (NSU) is a lack of capacity in the breast screening workforce, facilities and equipment to address the backlog quickly.

“The Ministry is reviewing how programme capacity could be increased and will work with providers to achieve this.”

Additionally, Support to Screen Services (SSS) and mobile screening units, which the Ministry spokesperson says are key to reaching women in rural communities, have been impacted by Covid-19 staffing issues in some areas.

Also compounding the issue is a level of anxiety around Covid-19 itself which is preventing some women from attending appointments.

“In terms of the women and families, breast screening providers around the country are reporting high community anxiety around Covid-19 that is impacting women’s comfort, with some women hesitant to attend appointments.”

The spokesperson says it’s important that women are aware of any changes to their breasts that are not normal for them.

“If they are worried about changes, they should talk to their doctor, as they have family and medical histories and are best placed to give advice about what is right for individuals. Doctors will refer people to District Health Boards, if needed.”

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