Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Statements


2:45 pm

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Independent) | Oireachtas source

Breast cancer awareness month is an opportunity for everyone to reflect on the impact of cancer, not only on our immediate lives but also on the wider general public. While researching in preparation for this debate, I was disappointed by our response to breast cancer during the Covid pandemic. The bottom line is we are now one year behind in the screening process. I shudder to think how many lives will be lost as a result. Breast cancer is the third most common cancer in Ireland, after skin and prostate cancer. Each year, more than 3,500 people are diagnosed with breast cancer, and the National Cancer Registry predicts this will figure will have increased to 4,650 by 2045.

Breast cancer is predominantly a female disease, and one in seven women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. It should be noted men can also get breast cancer, but it is much rarer. In fact, just over 35 men in Ireland are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. It is estimated that in the period 2015 to 2017, 724 people died of breast cancer in Ireland, of whom five were men.

Survival rates, as in the case of other cancers, are greatly increased with early detection. National Cancer Registry data show that the probability that a woman who has been diagnosed with breast cancer will survive the following five years is more than 80%. Our record in survival rates from breast cancer is one of the worst in Europe. In fact, we are ranked 16th of 24 EU countries in this regard. This is not acceptable and the Government must do more to improve it.

BreastCheck is the Irish screening programme for breast cancer. Breast screening helps find cancer at an early stage, and early detection makes cancer easier to treat and gives a much better chance of a successful outcome. To put this into perspective, up to the end of 2020, BreastCheck had delivered almost 2,000 mammograms and detected more than 14,400 cancers. Each year, one third of all breast cancers diagnosed in Ireland occur through the BreastCheck scheme. In light of these statistics, it is clear how important this programme is to women's health.

The Covid pandemic has caused great damage to Ireland but I fear even more damage is coming. Due to Covid, BreastCheck screening was suspended in March 2020. Services only resumed in October of that year, and even then, they were with greatly reduced capacity. At the time, I did not agree with this for I feared we were only creating more problems for ourselves down the road. The HSE's annual report of 2020 stated that only 56,270 women had received a complete mammogram, representing a massive fall of almost 70% when compared with previous years. That is shocking.

Why was this allowed to happen? Surely this programme was an essential service. Certain types of businesses were allowed to remain open, yet one of the most important screening programmes in the country was suspended. We need an explanation for this. We have been told screenings are about one year behind. What plans have been put in place to bring the screening programme up to date? As has been stated, early detection of breast cancer can be the difference between life and death. How can we get early detection when the programme is running a year behind schedule?

Full capacity was restored in September 2021 but this is not good enough. We need to increase the programme's capacity as a matter of urgency to reduce the backlog. The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, has stated, "In the light of Covid, clinical priority was given to referrals triaged as urgent." This is not good enough. The whole point of cancer screening is early detection. Even more worrying were the comments of Dr. Clive Kilgallen, chair of the consultant committee of the Irish Medical Organisation, who told the Joint Committee on Health that Covid-19 has had a significant negative impact on cancer services. He also stated there is a growing backlog of patients waiting for urgent, critical diagnostic services and treatment services.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak during this debate and raise awareness of the backlog in breast cancer screening. Both the Government and the HSE need to ensure these screening services are brought back up to date in order that there can again be early detection of breast cancer. The message is that if you are in doubt, get it checked and please attend your appointments.


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