Thursday, 21 October 2021
Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Statements
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak to this very important issue. Being the third most common cancer in Ireland, it is likely that we will all have had mothers, grandmothers, aunts, spouses, sisters or daughters affected by breast cancer at some point in our lives. This is a disease that affects us all and one that has taken too many too soon. I take a moment to acknowledge all those diagnosed with breast cancer, all those undergoing treatment, the family members and friends of those affected, breast cancer survivors and doctors and nurses who do such a great job to assist those affected, especially over the course of the pandemic.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a difficult time for many but especially for those affected by cancer. It is incredibly alarming that due to Covid-19, the screening programme for breast cancer is almost a year behind schedule. It has been said time and again that early detection of cancer is extremely important to ensure a better chance of survival and more treatment options. Women whose breast cancer is detected at an early stage have a 93% or higher survival rate in the first five years.
Why, then, are we not ramping up the funding of BreastCheck, especially now that the screening programme is so far behind? Significant funding must be provided urgently to deal with this backlog and if we are to properly ensure early detection, the screening programme must be expanded to include those under 50 as well as those over 70. This proposal is being considered by the Joint Committee on Health and I encourage every Deputy to support it in any way possible.
In my constituency of Donegal, the number of women waiting for breast cancer screening has risen to 6,800 according to new figures from the Health Service Executive. This is an absolutely shocking figure. The BreastCheck service is facing major backlogs due to Covid-19 and although screenings resumed in Donegal last October, they were suspended again in early 2021 due to high levels of virus in the community and did not resume until August. This backlog must be addressed immediately.
The fact that women must travel long journeys across the county for these checks must also be addressed. There were incidents lately of women from Inishowen being sent to Donegal town for BreastCheck appointments. For those who do not know the geography of Donegal, that is a journey of over an hour and a half. It might be easier to be sent to Belfast than Donegal town from Inishowen. In this case, a woman would travel for at least three hours for the BreastCheck appointment. That is for those with cars because there are no bus services or alternative transport available. I take this opportunity to thank Ms Betty Holmes, chair of Donegal Action for Cancer Care, for raising and helping to rectify this matter.
When BreastCheck was being rolled out initially, we in Donegal had been left to the back of the queue as usual. When the first check had been rolled out for Donegal women, women in the east of the country were already getting their second and in some cases their third cycle of the check. Women went ahead and organised a bus from Donegal to Belfast to get checked and at least three cancers were detected at that time. They were dismissed by the head of BreastCheck for taking action themselves but if they had waited for the health service to recognise Donegal, some of those women would have died, sadly. The women of Donegal have been completely left behind once again. In order to address this, I call on the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, to stay true to his word and ensure the Government puts a BreastCheck unit into Buncrana.
I would love to see a national roll-out start in Donegal for once and then we might get fair treatment, once and for all. If the women of Dublin had to wait four to five years to see the roll-out reach them, it would be the last time it would be done in that way. I also call on the HSE to keep the BreastCheck unit in Donegal town permanently. We need a number of locations for such checks because of the county's size.
There is no doubt BreastCheck services save lives and this breast cancer awareness month, I urge the Government to do all it can to prioritise breast cancer services. I know the Minister of State is doing this but we must ensure the backlog is cleared quickly. We cannot wait until 2023 or whenever it is for the backlog to be cleared. Clearing the backlog immediately will mean people will survive when they might not do so otherwise. It is vital and I know the Minister of State will do his best to make it happen. We need support from all of the Government to bring this about and ensure a roll-out happens leading to women getting the service they deserve.