Bowel cancer screening will remain on hold when New Zealand enters alert level 3 on Tuesday, sparking fears some patients could be falling through the cracks.

Dr Jane O'Hallahan, clinical director of the National Screening Unit, told the Herald breast cancer screening would restart under alert level 3, however bowel screening would not and no new invitations to screen would be issued during this time.

"This is because the bowel screening programme is required to undertake colonoscopy procedures as a necessary follow on from a positive screening test and such procedures could not be routinely done under alert level 3."

Bowel Cancer New Zealand spokesperson Mary Bradley said she worried this would mean that people with bowel cancer wouldn't be picked up.

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"We have heard from several people who are concerned because they can't access diagnostic screening for bowel cancer during Covid-19, which we know has been very stressful on them.

She said this could mean that while screening was unavailable some patient's bowel cancer could advance from treatable to terminal.

"We urge the Government to resume bowel screening as soon as it is safe and not to delay."

Bowel Cancer New Zealand spokeswoman Mary Bradley. Photo / File
Bowel Cancer New Zealand spokeswoman Mary Bradley. Photo / File

Mum unable to get tested

One mum from Blenheim - who did not want to be named - told the Herald that despite her GP deeming her urgent she had not been able to get tested.

She had a strong family history of bowel cancer and had been experiencing alarming symptoms, such as blood in her stool but could not get a colonoscopy due to Covid-19 restrictions.

"My GP told me that if I was in the UK I'd be deemed as urgent but due to my age it was unlikely I'd be able to get a colonoscopy through the public system.

"I saw a private specialist the day before lockdown was announced who wanted to do a colonoscopy but couldn't as they were shutting down for lockdown."

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The 38-year-old was referred by the private specialist to the public system for a "semi-urgent" colonoscopy but was declined as she did not meet the criteria.

She said she still had no idea when she would be able to get an appointment.

"I have two young children. I just want to know if I have cancer. If I do then I want to find it before it's too late," the mum said through tears.

"The thing that annoys me the most was that I pay all this money for insurance and finally need to use it but can't. It's really frustrating."

Weighing up the risk of Covid-19

Cancer Society medical director Dr Chris Jackson said he did not think we should be cranking up screening too quickly if there was still community transmission of Covid-19.

Cancer Society medical director Dr Chris Jackson. Photo / File
Cancer Society medical director Dr Chris Jackson. Photo / File

"You want to make sure it is safe for people. Hospitals are where sick people go and can get Covid and you don't want to bring otherwise healthy people here unnecessary so we have to be clear that we are on top of it before we do that," Jackson said.

Though Jackson stressed he wasn't talking about patients who already had symptoms of cancer.

"People who were showing signs of cancer should still be seeking help from their GP, we don't want them staying at home thinking they can't get help."

O'Hallahan said people who were identified as needing urgent colonoscopies would be able to receive those during level 3, as they had been able to during alert level 4.

"Anyone concerned about their bowel symptoms should talk to their GP directly, and not wait for screening to restart."

Moving to alert level 3 would allow routine breast screening and cervical screening appointments to restart but with safeguards in place to ensure the ongoing safety of all participants and staff, O'Hallahan said

She said women who have missed their appointments because of lockdown, and those who are due a routine screen test, will be contacted by their provider to make a new appointment.

The National Screening Unit will be regularly updating information for screening participants on its website www.timetoscreen.nz.

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website