Pre-Budget warning to the women of NZ: “Brace yourselves for disappointment”
Ahead of Budget 2023, Breast Cancer Foundation NZ is issuing a stark warning to the women of Aotearoa New Zealand: brace yourselves for disappointment that our Government won’t do more to prevent deaths from breast cancer.
In its recently published Breast Cancer Policy Scorecard, the Foundation revealed Labour does not support seven of 13 policy changes that would help to reduce breast cancer deaths. Of greatest concern to the charity is its assessment of Labour being the only party that won’t support extending the breast screening age to 74, despite the party promising to do this in 2017.
The charity was then taken aback at a Pink Ribbon Breakfast at Parliament two weeks ago, where Associate Minister of Health Willow-Jean Prime expressed concern that the age extension could inadvertently disadvantage women when the screening programme was still struggling to build the participation rate to 70%.
Ah-Leen Rayner, chief executive of Breast Cancer Foundation NZ, says the charity is fed up with six years of excuses for inaction: “Raising the screening age to 74 is the one thing the Government could do right now that would have the most impact on saving lives, and cost less than $10 million a year. But in the time since the promise was first made, we estimate that every month, one woman has needlessly lost her life because she couldn’t get the mammogram that would have made her breast cancer treatable.
“We’ve now had two different parliamentary committees recommend the Government do it, we have cross-party support for the issue, we’ve had a Health Minister and health officials accept the evidence that it would save lives, and yet we keep being told it’s not a priority.
“We disagree lifting the screening age would disadvantage some people. Best practice programmes screen to within 10 years of life expectancy and across all ethnicities in New Zealand, the average woman aged 70 today is expected to live until at least 84 – so the current limit of 69 is outdated. And we believe the system’s capacity can easily cope, when rolling out the extension would only require two extra mammograms for women already enrolled in the programme.
“Given these recent rebuffs, we expect there won’t be a great deal in the Budget for breast screening. How deeply disappointing it is that New Zealand will continue to fall behind international best practice for this life-saving service. In this election year, we’re reminding all of our politicians that we can save hundreds of lives from breast cancer – if there is the political will,” Rayner adds.
BreastScreen Aotearoa currently offers free two-yearly mammograms to women aged 45 to 69.
A timeline of Government inaction:
- May 2016: Breast Cancer Foundation NZ (BCFNZ) presents a petition signed by 10,000 New Zealanders to backbench MP Jacinda Ardern, calling for the screening age to be raised from 69 to 74.
- July 2016: BCFNZ is invited by the Health Select Committee to make a submission, in which it lays out the international evidence that screening to 74 would reduce breast cancer mortality.
- June 2017: The Health Select Committee recommends the Government extend the free national breast screening programme to women aged 70 to 74.
- October 2017: Increasing the age for free breast screening to 74 is featured as a priority in the Labour Party & New Zealand First Coalition Agreement.
- January 2020: The breast screening age extension is included within the Ministry of Health’s Cancer Action Plan.
- February 2022: In a meeting with then Health Minister Andrew Little, BCFNZ is told the Ministry of Health considers the evidence for the screening age extension to be sound.
- March 2022: BCFNZ makes a submission to the Petitions Committee, asking Government to restore and extend the breast screening programme in the wake of Covid-19 disruptions.
- Feb 2023: The cross-party Petitions Committee expresses its concern that more steps have not been taken towards implementing the age extension, given it was recommended by the 2017 Health Committee. The Petitions Committee overrides officials’ excuses and makes its own recommendation that the age should be lifted to 74.
BCFNZ released a Breast Cancer Policy Scorecard on 3 May after surveying the main political parties on 13 questions covering the three main aspects of the breast cancer pathway – screening, diagnosis and treatment – as well as the overall context of the Pae Ora legislation and the Women’s Health Strategy. The scorecard can be viewed at breastcancerfoundation.org.nz/election-scorecard