“No good reason why free mammograms for 70-74 year olds can’t happen right now”
The Government has an opportunity to show leadership for women’s health this October by immediately raising the free breast screening age, says Justine Smyth, chair of Breast Cancer Foundation NZ (BCFNZ). This follows the National Party’s commitment to extend the screening age yesterday, which BCFNZ wholeheartedly supports.
One year on from launching a campaign to ensure women in Aotearoa New Zealand can access mammograms, this Breast Cancer Awareness Month the charity is urging the Government to extend the upper eligibility age for free mammograms from 69 to 74.
“We knew lockdowns were impacting breast screening but we didn’t know the extent of the problem until the Ministry of Health admitted 50,000 women were overdue their mammograms,” says Ah-Leen Rayner, chief executive of BCFNZ.
“We’ve spent the past year working with the Government and BreastScreen Aotearoa to make sure there is a plan and enough resource to clear the mammogram backlog, and we’re now satisfied with the solid progress being made.”
BreastScreen Aotearoa (BSA) has reduced the backlog to around 30,000 from 50,000 in October 2021, and says four of the eight regional providers are now back to pre-Covid participation levels.
“This catch-up shows BSA does have the capacity to proceed with the age extension, which would only require two extra mammograms per woman. When the risk of breast cancer is higher at 70 than it is at 40, there’s no good reason why free mammograms for 70-74 year olds can’t happen right now,” says Rayner.
Andrea Dorn's mother Audrey was diagnosed with breast cancer while in her 70s. Audrey had found a lump as she was no longer eligible for free mammograms, then went through a partial mastectomy and radiation treatment. Because it was detected early enough, Audrey didn't need to go through chemotherapy, her treatment was successful and she lived to nearly 92.
Andrea is now in her 70s herself, as is her sister Linda, so she's passionate about seeing the free breast screening age raised.
Andrea says: "I have to pay $230 to get mammograms done privately - that's a lot of money for a pensioner. I worry that for many women of my age, mammograms won't be a priority because of the cost and so there's a chance their breast cancer won't be detected until too late. We can still develop breast cancer at our age, yet many women won't be aware of this because we can't get screened anymore."
Te Whatu Ora – Health NZ agrees evidence shows mammograms are beneficial for women in their 70s, and the Ministry of Health believes extending the age range could reduce deaths by at least a third.
BSA has said its IT system wouldn’t be able to cope with the age extension. Breast Cancer Foundation NZ disputes this as it does not require new enrolments, rather just two additional mammograms for women already enrolled in the breast screening programme.
Early detection of breast cancer through screening leads to higher survival rates and lower costs for treatment. New Zealand’s current upper age limit puts us out of sync with international practice, with countries like Australia, the UK, France and many others screening beyond 69.
“Local research shows women aged 70-74 have poorer survival rates and much of that can be put down to the lack of availability of free mammograms. Raising the age to 74 is something the Government can easily do right now and it will undeniably save lives,” Rayner adds.