Breast cancer patients facing lengthy delays

Breast Cancer Now has warned that over 1,500 breast cancer patients in the UK could be facing ‘extremely upsetting’ delays for reconstructive surgery of many months, possibly years.

Nearly one in three cancers diagnosed in women in the UK are breast cancers, with around 55,000 women and also 370 men diagnosed each year.

The charity has estimated that more than 1,500 women had missed out on reconstructive surgery since NHS breast reconstruction services were suspended in March 2020 to help reduce risks to patients of lengthy operations or infection and as the NHS tried to cope with the demands of the pandemic.

Under normal circumstances, guidance recommends that all breast cancer patients requiring a mastectomy should be offered breast reconstruction, with the option of either having it immediately or delaying it until a later date. While not all women with breast cancer choose to have reconstruction, for those that do having to live with one breast, no breasts, or asymmetric breasts due to lengthy delays to surgery can cause great distress.

The backlog of breast reconstruction surgery due to the pandemic has added to already extensive waiting lists for delayed reconstruction, of up to two years in many hospitals, which will continue to grow in the months to come. Patients affected by delays to reconstructive surgery have been reporting significant emotional impacts, including damaged body confidence, anxiety and depression, at a time when face-to-face support from healthcare professionals and charities was not possible.

With reconstruction services now beginning to resume, Breast Cancer Now has urged NHS bodies across the UK to ensure that patients get the surgery they need as soon as possible. The charity also called for reassurances from the NHS that women waiting for delayed operations will not be forgotten or prevented from having surgery due to time restrictions, after a Breast Cancer Now report in 2018 revealed some Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) in England were only funding reconstruction within a particular timeframe.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at Breast Cancer Now, said: “We are deeply concerned by our finding that over 1,500 breast cancer patients may now face lengthy and extremely upsetting delays for reconstructive surgery. This will leave many women who want to have reconstruction living with one breast, no breasts, or asymmetric breasts for months, possibly even years.

“Reconstructive surgery is an essential part of recovery after breast cancer for those who choose it. Women with breast cancer have told us these delays are causing them huge anxiety, low self-esteem and damaged body confidence, and all at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has denied them access to face-to-face support from healthcare professionals and charities.

“We are pleased that breast reconstruction services are starting up again, but until operations are fully resumed the Covid-19 backlog will only continue to grow, worsening already lengthy waiting lists. This is why we are calling on NHS bodies across the UK to ensure that all breast cancer patients get their reconstructive surgery as soon as possible, regardless of whether the delay has been through choice or cancelled surgeries. These women have already been through the challenge of breast cancer, exacerbated by not being able to access face-to-face support. We owe it to them to end their wait for reconstructive surgery that we know for so many is critical to their recovery."

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