More than 13,000 women with breast cancer are feared to have missed out on an earlier diagnosis because the NHS has repeatedly failed to hit screening targets.

Breast Cancer Now is calling for a national awareness campaign to improve screening uptake after new figures revealed the target has been missed for four years in a row.

Fewer than two in three women (64.6 per cent) took up their screening appointment in 2022/23, according to NHS England.

This is a small improvement from 62.3 per cent the previous year but performance has fallen short of the NHS ‘minimum target’ of 70 per cent since 2019/20.

Breast Cancer Now today warned this is a ’cause for grave concern’ because screening is a ‘vital tool’ that enables most breast cancers to be detected early, when survival rates are almost 100 per cent.

In 2022/23, 2.98million women aged 50 to 70 were invited to breast screening but only 1.93million had attended within six months of receiving the invite – the timeframe used to measure uptake.

It meant more than one in three women (35.4 per cent) failed to attend, rising to almost half (46.3 per cent) among those who were invited for the first time.

Uptake was highest in the South East at 68 per cent and lowest in London at 55.4 per cent.

The screening programme led to the detection of cancer in 18,942 women across England in 2022/23, the figures reveal.

Without screening, these may not have been diagnosed and treated until a later stage, when survival rates are lower.

Am I eligible for a mammogram? 

Women aged 50 to 71 are advised to have a breast screening every three years.

Women who are registered with a GP will be sent a letter inviting them.

At the appointment, X-rays called mammograms check the breasts for signs of cancer.

Results will be sent out in a letter, usually within two weeks. It will set out whether there is no sign of cancer or if further tests are needed.  

Breast screening saves around 1,300 lives each year in the UK. 

The chance of getting breast cancer increases with age and most are diagnosed in women aged over 50. 

However, if the 70 per cent uptake target had been met for all of the four years it has been missed, Breast Cancer Now estimate 4,889 more breast cancers would have been found, helping to ensure these women started treatment sooner.

And had uptake reached the health service’s more ambitious goal of 80 per cent, it is believed 13,737 additional cases could have been detected.

NHS England urged women to put their health ‘at the top of their to-do list and come forward for breast screening when invited’.

The figures come after a report by Breast Cancer Now and cross-party think tank Demos, published earlier this month, showed increasing breast screening uptake across the UK to 80 per cent could save the economy between £96million and £111million by 2034.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at Breast Cancer Now, said a national awareness campaign would improve the public’s understanding of why breast screening is important and help bust myths and misconceptions that can put people off attending.

She added: ‘For a fourth consecutive year, breast screening uptake in England has tragically fallen short of the minimum 70 per cent target.

‘Our incredible NHS staff continue to go above and beyond to provide the best standard of care, but women will continue to be denied the best chance of a timely breast cancer diagnosis until the government shows it’s serious about breast screening.

‘We desperately need more eligible women to be screened for breast cancer, and for screening units to be supported to reach more women and help save more lives from the disease.

‘The government recognises the breast screening programme is crucial to achieving its aims to increase early diagnosis and reduce cancer inequalities.

‘But these disappointing figures show that, yet again, it’s failing to take the decisive action needed to boost screening attendance.

‘We’re urgently calling on the government and NHS England, as part of our #NoTimeToWaste campaign, to invest in breast screening, and deliver a national awareness campaign.

Fewer than two in three women (64.6 per cent) took up their screening appointment in 2022/23, according to NHS England

Fewer than two in three women (64.6 per cent) took up their screening appointment in 2022/23, according to NHS England

‘This must promote the importance and availability of breast screening in England, with a focus on areas and communities where uptake is lowest; a crucial first step in transforming the programme and guaranteeing women’s access to breast screening both now and for the future.’

The Government has invested £70million to modernise screening services over the next three years, with plans to offer more booking options, including online and via call centres.

Dr Louise Wilkinson, a consultant radiologist and national specialist advisor for breast screening at NHS England, said: ‘Around one in seven women are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime, and detecting it at an early stage helps give people the best chance of successful treatment.

‘Today’s figures show that 18,942 women were diagnosed and able to seek treatment because they attended breast screening check-ups last year.

‘We know that lives are saved when cancers are caught early.

‘I know life gets busy, but I would urge anyone who has received a breast screening invitation – even if you received the invite weeks or months ago – to put your health at the top of your to-do list and book an appointment at your local screening service or mobile unit.

‘It could save your life.’

Under the NHS Breast Screening Programme, eligible women will usually receive their first routine invitation for breast cancer screening between the ages of 50 and 53 and will normally be invited every three years until their 71st birthday.

NHS England is also asking women of all ages to be aware of their breast health and to know how to check themselves for cancer symptoms.

The introduction of ‘open invitations’ for NHS mammogram appointments has been blamed for the decline in women coming forward for breast cancer screening.

Before the pandemic, all women received mammogram appointments with a set date and time. 

But the NHS now recommends ‘open invitations’, which require women to call and book their own appointment.

A study by Queen Mary University last year found that women were 14 per cent more likely to turn up for a mammogram if they had an appointment with a date and time, rather than an open invitation.

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