10 Dec 2021

Lockdown blamed for rise in cancers not found earlier

From Checkpoint, 5:11 pm on 10 December 2021

Health professionals are warning backlogs due to lockdown are causing a rise in delayed cancer diagnosis and treatment.

After two years of lockdowns, the Ministry of Health says the backlog for regular breast screening has risen to 50,000.

Skin cancer specialists says they are already seeing an increase in severe cases due to delayed appointments.

Doctor setting a patient in the correct position to get a mammogram. Breast cancer screening.

(File image) Photo: 123RF

Dr Heidi Macrae was due to have a routine mammogram in August but it was cancelled because of the lockdown.

At first, she did not think much of it, but weeks later, she could not ignore the signs.

"I started to get very unusual symptoms which are not typical of breast cancer at all, and because I'm a doctor and knew what was going on, I managed to persuade Auckland Breast Centre to do my mammogram," Dr Macrae said.

"There was a 2.5 centimetre tumour there that I couldn't feel."

If she had waited till her appointment was re-scheduled to December, the result could be drastically different, she said.

"I think it saved my life ... I've had three months of chemo[therapy] and the good news I had last week was that my tumour is shrinking.

"I've got a colleague who was diagnosed at the same time and she had to wait seven weeks before finding the lump to getting to treatment. Her lump grew from the size of an apricot kernel to the size of an avocado pip in seven weeks."

With her medical knowledge, Dr Macrae managed to get the mammogram she needed, but other women are not as fortunate.

Breast Cancer Foundation NZ's modelling shows at least 133 women are living with undetected breast cancer, because their mammogram was cancelled due to the lockdowns over the last two years.

They are calling for help from the government, with an online petition asking for funding and resources garnering more than 10,000 signatures

Breast Cancer NZ chief executive Ahleen Rayner said women needed to get checked as soon as possible, because the statistics tell a drastic story.

"Each year, more than 650 women die of breast cancer. One in nine women you know will be diagnosed and that's over 3300 women per year diagnosed. For women under the age of 65, breast cancer is the leading cause of death.

"It's really important to know that if you do have signs or symptoms, please don't wait to get an appointment for a mammogram, please go and visit your GP immediately and get it checked, and they will get you into a fast-tracked stream."

Skin cancer diagnoses after the 2020 lockdown increased by 14 percent.

With continued restrictions this year, plastic surgeons like Dr Katarzyna Mackenzie are expecting another rise in skin cancer cases.

"[Every year] about 4000 Kiwis get diagnosed with melanoma. We do know that more than 350 of them will die and looking at the UK data, for example, one-fifth of early stage melanomas went undiagnosed with lockdown. So I think that may happen in New Zealand.

"People are enjoying the life, especially now having been through so much in the year, everybody is looking forward to Christmas so they may be more reluctant to go and see GPs."

The cases Dr Mackenzie was seeing were also more severe due to the delay.

"We are seeing more patients with advanced skin cancers ... Depending on the type of skin cancer, some of them can be quite aggressive, they can spread to lymph nodes, they can spread to other solid organs."

She said the message about seeking medical attention during lockdown should be extended to all.

"We heard the governing body saying if you are unwell go to the GP, but I have never heard anything being said about look if you've got a skin cancer you should still go or have a teleconference with your GP so that can be addressed in a timely manner."