More than 133 women could die of a breast cancer they don't yet know they have unless the Government takes urgent action.
That is the harrowing warning from the Breast Cancer Foundation which today is rolling out a nationwide campaign to combat months of backlog putting a deadly strain on the screening programme.
"Quite literally Covid has set us back 10 years, which is tragic, absolutely tragic," Breast Cancer Foundation chief executive Ah-Leen Rayner told the Herald.
People have been ringing up to book in a mammogram and being told to wait until next year, Rayner said.
That delay could kill, she said.
Comparing the country's breast cancer diagnosis rates to previous years, the foundation has calculated 133 women don't know they have the potentially deadly disease - and that could only be the tip of the iceberg.
This is due to the snowballing backlog linked to the national breast screening programme being put on hold when the country went into alert level 4 on August 18, and then running at reduced capacity from level 3.
They are calling on New Zealanders to sign a petition asking for the Government to urgent action the following:
• Add breast screening participation to the new Health System Indicators Health Minister Andrew Little announced would measure how well our public health system was doing.
• Invest in restoring and extending the BreastScreen Aotearoa programme to the agreed target of 70 per cent coverage of women aged 45-69, and extending to 70-74 in line with other countries.
• Provide funding and resources to enable BreastScreen Aotearoa to process the entire backlog within six months
• Ensure breast screening continues to operate in level 4 lockdown in the same way as level 3, to help minimise future losses.
Rayner said before Covid hit New Zealand the screening programme had reached above target at a national coverage rate of 71 per cent.
"That coverage has dropped significantly (66 per cent) and it's worse for minority groups, for Māori it was 58 per cent and for Pasifika it was now 62 per cent," she said.
She said postcode lottery for cancer care was also being exacerbated due to different regions popping in and out of lockdowns.
"As women we tend to only talk about these things when something goes wrong ... we have to shift that paradigm and actively ask each other 'have you been screened?', 'do you know the signs and symtoms?'... we tend to have reactive conversations regarding our health instead of proactive ones," Rayner said.
In 2019, the Government introduced the Cancer Control Agency to hold powers to account and put an end to inequalities in cancer care.
The Herald asked Professor Diana Sarfati, chief executive of Te Aho o Te Kahu, the Cancer Control Agency, if she and the agency would be backing the campaign. She could not answer directly.
Instead, Sarfati said people could still be screened in alert levels 1, 2 & 3 and urged people to attend appointments if they were booked.
"If you feel a lump in your breast or have any concerns don't wait for your screening appointment - go and see your doctor. Doctors are working under all alert levels and are able to help with any concerning symptoms," Sarfati said.
"Our monitoring last year showed a reduction in cancer diagnosis following the March 2020 lockdown, followed by an increase in the months following. I am aware breast cancer diagnosis took several months to catch up and this is something Te Aho o Te Kahu will continue to monitor," she said.
Last month, the agency did run a joint campaign with Bowel Cancer New Zealand called New Normal Same Cancer.
Associate Minister of Health Ayesha Verrall - who is in charge of breast screening - said she was committed to ensuring New Zealand women can access the healthcare they need but could not give a direct answer as to whether the campaign pleas would be considered.
Instead, Verrall said screening providers were working hard to offer women appointments, as a result of missed screens during level 4 lockdown.
"In alert levels 2 and 3 it is safe for women to return to screening, and I urge them to attend appointments."
She said Budget 2021 invested up to $55.6 million to upgrade the breast cancer screening system to reduce the number of people who die from this disease.
Another $10 million was earmarked in Budget 2021 to match population growth and catch up on breast screens missed due to lockdowns, Verrall said,
She said National Screening Unit was working on a number of initiatives to increase participation by significantly reducing barriers to screening, particularly for Māori and Pacific women who had lower rates of screening.
This include different funding models, co-design work with Māori and Pacific women, and the use of mobile screening units which can travel to remote communities, Verrall said.
The Ministry of Health continued to review international evidence around extending the age range for breast cancer screening, she said.
When Sarah Kane found out she had breast cancer after a four-month wait to get tested, her first thought was "my mum died of cancer".
The 48-year-old Auckland mum-of-two wanted to share her story to encourage the Government to take this campaign seriously.
"I was lucky my cancer could still be beaten despite the delay, but others won't be so lucky," she said.
She'd had an abnormal breast screen and was orginially booked in for a mammogram at the end of May last year but due to the Covid backlog it got pushed out until August and then again to September.
Her mammogram test showed further testing was needed so she had a biopsy on October 7. That's when she found out she had grade two invasive cancer.
"My first thought was I lost my mum to lung cancer," Kane said.
She had also lost her job due to Covid and just days before she found out she had cancer was offered a new one but was forced to turn it down to focus on her health.
"It was a huge stress ... I wasn't able to work so I had no income during that time."
In order to survive, she was told she would need surgery to either remove both of her breasts, or part of but with radiation.
She took a week to consider her options and decided to opt for a partial removal and radiation.
"It was really hard for all the family. My daughters found it really rough, it was hard for them to see me go through it because it was months of feeling unwell and lots of appointments and lots of worry."
Nearly a year down the track, she counts her blessings for being cancer free but said it was a really hard battle and not everyone would be so lucky.