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Charity concerned that one third of women ignore breast screening invite

The Cancer Research UK logo
by Cancer Research UK | News

30 September 2009

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On the eve of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Cancer Research UK today sends out a warning that if thousands of women continue to ignore invitations to breast screening they could be putting their lives at risk.

The NHS breast screening figures have shown that around three in 10 women still do not attend screening*.

In 2008, out of 2.2 million women who were sent an invitation for screening, 1.7 million attended – around 73 per cent.

Now experts are predicting that if all women attended screening when invited, then around 600 extra lives could be saved each year.

In January the number of newly invited women in England who went for screening fell below 70 per cent for the first time.

Former airline stewardess Barbara Gibbs, from Berkshire, believes a routine mammogram saved her life. Twelve years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer after she was called back for a second mammogram after she had gone for breast screening.

“After surgery I was given six weeks of radiotherapy and then put on tamoxifen for five years,” says Barbara who is now 68. “I was lucky because my cancer was caught early even though I had no lump and no symptoms.

“I wouldn’t be alive today if I hadn’t gone for that mammogram. I feel very positive that I am a survivor and I just can’t emphasise how strongly I feel that women must take up their invitation to breast screening. It certainly saved my life because the cancer was caught early and treated promptly.”

Doreen Walker, from Potters Bar, who now volunteers in one of Cancer Research UK’s charity shops, was also diagnosed with breast cancer following a routine mammogram 16 years ago, a year after retiring from the NHS.

“I feel very lucky to have been picked up by screening. I made sure I went for a mammogram every three years and honestly believe I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for breast screening. I would certainly recommend that all women go for their appointments – it is vital for every woman and could save their life,” says Doreen who is now 78.

With more than 45,500 women diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 it is now the most common cancer in the UK.

In England the NHS breast screening programme diagnoses around 10,000 cases of breast cancer each year and saves around 1,400 lives every year.

Dr Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK’s director of cancer information, said: “Screening saves lives, so it’s extremely worrying to see that the percentage of women going for screening is dropping. Mammograms pick up the very early signs of breast cancer when it’s much easier to treat. Even though the screening programme saves around 1,400 lives each year we predict that if there was 100 per cent attendance, hundreds more lives could be saved.

“Although there has been some criticism of the breast cancer screening programme in the past it is still the best weapon we have in the early detection of a disease that affects more than 45,500 women every year. Our research has found that screening has reduced breast cancer death rates by up to a quarter in women within the screening age range, while international research found that for every 500 women screened, one life will be saved.

“But it’s vital that we’re not complacent. Monitoring and improving the screening programme, including the information available to women, is important to ensure women are fully aware of the benefits and any possible risks of screening.”

Professor Stephen Duffy, Cancer Research UK’s professor of cancer screening at Queen Mary, University of London, said: “Most women who go for screening are reassured to be told that they don’t have breast cancer. But, it’s still important for all women who are invited to attend. For the minority who do get breast cancer, catching it early through screening means women are more likely to be successfully treated and less likely to need a mastectomy.”

Professor Julietta Patnick, Director of the NHS Breast Cancer Screening Programme, commented: “The NHS Breast Cancer Screening Programme welcomes the support of Cancer Research UK in encouraging women to accept their screening invitations. The Programme is working hard to understand the factors that affect women’s uptake of invitations in order to provide the best possible service, and to provide women with the right information for them to make their decision.”


For media enquiries please contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7061 8300 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.

*”Breast Screening Programme, England 2007-08″ NHS Information Centre, Jan 2009 – uptake figures for 50-70 year olds.