Tuesday, 5 October 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
The next Commencement matter concerns the very important issue of the BreastCheck cancer screening programme. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, to the House and thank her for coming in today. I also thank Senator McGreehan for her great initiative. It takes a lot for me to change my green tie to a pink tie. I would only do so for a good cause like this. I thank her for raising this most important matter and for her initiative in relation to encouraging Members of House to wear pink during this month.
I thank the Cathaoirleach, the Minister of State, my other colleagues and the staff in Leinster House who are going pink for breast cancer awareness month. First, I must say that today is an emotional day, because this issue means a lot to me. I am thinking of everyone who is currently going through treatment for breast cancer or is in recovery. I also wish to say how sorry I am for those families who are grieving the loss of a loved one.It is a terrible loss and one which is never understood. This mark of solidarity, wearing pink, is meant to say that we remember these people's loved ones and that we want to raise awareness of this disease so that perhaps someone will be encouraged to get checked and, rather than having to remember loved ones, we will have them with us. We just might save a life. I thank Councillor Teresa Costello, with whom I am working on this. She is a breast cancer survivor and has an incredible wealth of knowledge and a clear determination to raise awareness of breast health.
As the Cathaoirleach has said, my Commencement matter today is to ask the Minister for Health for an update on BreastCheck and to support an increased awareness campaign to support breast health. Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed malignant tumour in Irish women. There were 2,883 such diagnoses in 2014 and this increased to 3,700 diagnoses in 2021. This represents one third of all the major malignancies diagnosed in women. Although survival rates for breast cancer are currently very high, with 82% of those diagnosed surviving for more than five years, it is still the second most common cause of death in women, after lung cancer. On average, 724 deaths per year were attributed to breast cancer in the period from 2015 to 2017. This number has significantly declined, by about 2% per year, since 1994.
It is devastating that we lose 724 people to breast cancer every year but it is also estimated that 60% of those diagnosed with breast cancer every year are outside the national screening programme, BreastCheck. I am an advocate for increased screening but this is a decision for the national screening advisory committee. As part of my campaign, I will be submitting a proposal recommending that the Department of Health lower the age at which screening begins to 40. The Department can act now to empower women and men to check themselves and to be breast aware. We know that early detection saves lives. A full population-wide awareness programme will change outcomes. I ask that the Department fund an increased awareness campaign including national advertisements on television and social media reminding people to check for changes in their breasts. It is also very important to show people how to check for changes in their breasts. I also ask that each hospital group take a supportive and proactive role in this campaign and that the Department and the HSE work with GPs to facilitate increased education to support the referral of patients to specialist breast clinics. Being breast aware, knowing the changes that could signify cancer in men and women, teaching people to check themselves and empowering people will save lives. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.
I thank the Cathaoirleach very much for embracing the pink today. It is great to see it on him and on all our colleagues here. I also thank Senator McGreehan for giving me the opportunity to update the House on this important matter. I understand how important it is.
This Government is fully committed to supporting our population screening programmes which are a valuable part of our health service. As the Senator will know, BreastCheck, along with other cancer screening programmes, was temporarily paused last year due to the impact of Covid-19. The capacity in BreastCheck was also impacted by the cyberattack on the HSE. It should also be noted that, even when screening was paused, the programme continued to operate follow-up clinics and the national screening service is working to maximise the screening invitation rate within the current environment. The programme has done a significant amount of work to support the safe resumption of breast screening. The focus of the resumption includes the management of capacity across the whole of the screening pathway, which includes follow-up assessment and treatments. I am happy to report that routine screening appointments are now returning to normal with approximately 59,000 women screened between January and July of this year. This exceeded the target of 49,000 and more than 10,000 participants were screened in August 2021.
Due to the impact of Covid-19 and the pause in screening in 2020 and again earlier this year, BreastCheck appointments are delayed by up to one year. It will take approximately three years to get through this current screening round, which normally takes about two years. However, this is still within international norms as countries such as England only screen every three years. Women who have been waiting the longest will be invited first. The national screening service is now working hard to return to breast screening every two years in a safe manner.BreastCheck provides lots of information for the public on its website breastcheck.ie. This includes educational materials to encourage women to be aware of general breast health and, crucially, the common symptoms they should seek medical advice for. It runs social and digital media campaigns and provides valuable information on their website, including regular updates relating to Covid-19.
As Senators might be aware, and as Senator McGreehan said, October is breast cancer awareness month. The national screening service and the HSE have planned an extensive media campaign to highlight key details about screening during Covid-19, breast cancer prevention and symptom awareness. Some €10 million additional funding was provided to the HSE for cancer screening in 2021. These important new developments will help increase capacity and enable screening of individuals who had to defer their appointments because of Covid-19. This includes two new mobile screening units for BreastCheck planned for Donegal and Dublin.
In line with commitments in the programme for Government, BreastCheck is currently implementing an age-extension project that will see all women aged between 50 and 69 being invited for routine breast screening. As with all our national screening programmes, BreastCheck delivers its services in line with international criteria for population-based screening programmes that are kept under constant review. Again, I take this opportunity to emphasise that screening is for healthy people who do not have symptoms. People who are between screening appointments, or who are waiting for rescheduled appointments, are asked to be aware of symptoms. If they have concerns or worries, they should contact their GP who will arrange appropriate follow-up care.
It is positive news that, as the Minister of State mentioned, the three-year extension of BreastCheck appointments will be back to normal within the year. When reflecting on all the challenges the health service and BreastCheck have had over the past 18 months to two years, it is good news that we will be back to normal and better than our neighbours in having a two-year turnaround for BreastCheck.
I also very much welcome that the national screening service and the HSE will carry out an extensive media campaign to highlight this. Early detection will save lives, improve outcomes and will make for far better outcomes for everybody. I appreciate that they are implementing the current age extension, which is great. I will look for those ages to be lowered, but that is another day's work. It is up to the national screening advisory committee to recommend that to the Department.
I very much thank the Minister of State. It is good news. There is a lot done and a little more to do.
The Senator is quite right. As I have outlined, the additional €10 million investment in cancer screening this year represents a commitment by the Government. The development and opening of new BreastCheck units and the recruitment of more staff will assist and enhance capacity across the service. The events around breast cancer awareness this month will, no doubt, raise awareness of the benefits of screening and support more women to be breast aware.
The most important point to get across, and all my female colleagues present will support me in this, is that it is important that women who are called for their appointments go along. I remember when I was called a couple of years ago - when a woman turns 50 she gets the call within a year - and it is so important to go. Sometimes people are a little apprehensive and embarrassed but it is the most important thing they can do. Sometimes they get good news and sometimes they get bad news, but early intervention is key. The message from the House today, during such an important month, is that everyone is encouraged to go for their BreastCheck appointment when they are called.