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Breast Cancer Screening Take-Up Falls to 10 Year Low

The number of women in England taking up NHS invitations to undergo breast cancer screening is at its lowest level in 10 years, according to new figures.

The Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) data showed the proportion of women aged 50-70 undergoing tests fell from just over 70 per cent in 2004-05 to 63.3 per cent in 2014-15.

Breast screening coverage - which is the overall number of women being tested - has also fallen for the fourth consecutive year. Health experts say the reasons behind the falls need urgent investigation.

Breast screening uses x-ray tests known as mammograms to detect early signs that breast cancer may be developing. Mammograms can identify cancers when they are too small to see or feel.

The likelihood of getting breast cancer increases with age and under the NHS breast screening programme, all eligible women registered with a GP will automatically receive their first routine invitation for screening between the ages of 50 and 53. They will then usually be invited for further tests every three years until the age of 70.

Women who are aged over 70 will stop receiving screening invitations. This does not mean they are ineligible for screening every three years and if they suspect they may have breast cancer, they can still arrange an appointment by contacting their GP or local screening unit.

A number of screening centre pilot programmes are currently underway throughout England where the age range for test invitations has been extended to women aged 47-49 and 71-73.

In 2014-15, 2.11 million women aged 45 and over were screened from a total of 2.8 million who were invited. Coverage of women aged 53 to 70 was 75.4 per cent at 31 March 2015, down from a high of 77.2 per cent in 2011.

Despite the fall, coverage in England for women aged 53 to 70 is still above the NHS cancer screening programme’s minimum standard of 70 per cent everywhere except London which had the lowest take-up rate at 68.3 per cent.

Although it is encouraging that more than 75 per cent of women are undergoing regular checks for breast cancer, the downward trend in the number of women taking up their first screening invitation is cause for concern and it is important the NHS investigates why this is happening.

Around one in eight women in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. Breast cancers found by mammograms are generally at an early stage. Regular breast screening will help detect cancer early. The earlier cancer is identified, the better the chances of effective treatment and recovery. According to Cancer Research UK, current evidence suggests that breast screening reduces the number of deaths from breast cancer by around 1,300 a year in the UK.

Sometimes, women are told they have breast cancer when they do not. Breast screening can also detect cancers that may not become life-threatening and may not even cause symptoms such as lumps or a thickening of breast tissue. In such cases, patients can end up having unnecessary extra tests and treatment which may result in scarring or cosmetic deformity caused by having more breast tissue removed than is necessary.

Errors in falsely diagnosing breast cancer can be very serious. Breast cancer is usually diagnosed by a combination of three types of investigation: clinical examination, mammogram or ultrasound scans, and biopsies where cells are analysed under a microscope. This is known as the ‘Triple Test’. Breast cancer should only be diagnosed where results from all three investigations suggest that a growth is cancerous.

Lynne Ainsworth is a clinical negligence solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in Liverpool.

Our medical negligence solicitors offer a free consultation to help you understand if you have a claim for breast cancer compensation. Call Slater and Gordon on freephone 0800 916 9049 or contact us online


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