Protecting the Long-Term Health of Kiwi Women Seniors

Today in the Banquet Hall of Parliament Buildings, Wellington a group of breast cancer supporters, MPs, and VIP guests gathered at a special Pink Ribbon Breakfast event, where the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation (NZBCF) presented a petition to Government to extend the free breast screening programme to women up to the age of 74 years.

Hosted by Jacinda Ardern, MP the event was attended by special guests Dame Rosie Horton, NZBCF patron and Lorraine Downes, NZBCF ambassador. All three women share a special connection with the cause as their own mothers have been affected by breast cancer. Dame Rosie lost her mother to breast cancer at a young age and has been involved with the NZBCF as a trustee and patron for many years. Lorraine’s mother Glad Downes is a breast cancer survivor, having been diagnosed with the disease at age 76; mother and daughter fronted a NZBCF ’70 Plus’ campaign to raise awareness of the importance of continuing to have mammograms for women over the age of 70. Jacinda’s mother Laurell is a breast cancer survivor, having been diagnosed two years ago, and they have other family members who have been affected by the disease.

At the event, a petition from Evangelia Henderson, chief executive of the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation, was presented to Jacinda Ardern to table in the House that afternoon. The petition stated ‘That the House of Representatives recommend to the Government that New Zealand’s free national breast screening programme for women, currently offered to women aged between 45 and 69, be extended to women aged 70 to 74.’ Justine Smyth, NZBCF chairperson, personally handed over the petition containing 10,000 signatures from New Zealanders representing the 88,300 women in the 70-74 age group and their supporters.

“Early detection is the best weapon in the fight against breast cancer. For the past 20 years, the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation has been working hard to promote this message and improve access to breast screening for New Zealand women. Recent medical evidence supports the continued screening of women beyond the age of 70, and with Australia and the UK extending their free programmes to age 74 and 73 respectively, it’s time New Zealand followed suit. We appeal to the Government to do the right thing and extend the free breast screening programme to women up to the age of 74,” says Evangelia Henderson, chief executive, NZ Breast Cancer Foundation.

Over the past two years, the NZBCF has worked consistently to promote the message to women aged 70+ to keep having mammograms, while they remain in good health. In 2014, the NZBCF ran a ’70 Plus’ awareness campaign fronted by Lorraine and Glad Downes encouraging women over the age of 70 to continue to self-check and have regular mammograms.

The NZBCF also worked behind the scenes to help improve access and reduce barriers for mammograms, seeking discounts from private providers, and continuing to lobby government to extend the free screening programme to age 74. The NZ Breast Cancer Foundation’s support for the mammogram age extension goes beyond collecting signatures, with practical support on offer. In the past, the NZBCF has purchased equipment for BreastScreen Aotearoa and funded training of mammographers. “But we’re open to suggestion,” says Evangelia Henderson. “We’d love to help in any way we can.”

According to recent research many women think their risk of breast cancer is low outside of the current free breast screening programme age range of 45-69, but the opposite is true. A woman’s risk for breast cancer is higher in her 70s than at 50. As well as this lack of awareness, the research also revealed that cost was the main barrier to continuing to screen past the age of 69, with the cost of a mammogram by a private provider being around $150-$200. “Free screening will not only support the message to women to continue to be breast-aware past the age of 70 but will ensure they have access to the service and continue to be screened. Not only will this save more lives through early detection, but the cost to the health system will be reduced by having less patients needing treatment and hospitalisation. We’re only asking for an additional two mammograms per woman above the current screening programme. A New Zealand woman aged 70 in 2014 is likely to live to 89, twenty years after her last free mammogram. Our message is, 70 isn’t old! We want our 70-plus women to live healthy, active lives with their families for as long as possible”, says Evangelia Henderson.