Annual breast cancer checks could save 1,000 lives a year, says women’s health tsar

Breast cancer mammograms smear test screening women’s health - Rui Vieira/PA Wire
Breast cancer mammograms smear test screening women’s health - Rui Vieira/PA Wire

Offering women annual breast cancer checks could save 1,000 lives a year, the Government’s women’s health tsar has said.

Dame Lesley Regan said that the current system of screening women aged 50 to 70 once every three years was “not based on scientific evidence”.

The UK’s breast screening programme has the longest gap between screens in the world. In the US, it is every one or two years, and in Europe, it is every two years.

Dame Lesley, who is also a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Imperial College London, claimed that the decision to give women mammograms once every three years had been based on the budgets available in the Eighties, when checks were introduced.

However, she said that more recent studies showed annual mammograms could save significant numbers of lives.

Dame Lesley Regan breast cancer mammogram smear test screening - Peter Nicholls/AFP via Getty Images
Dame Lesley Regan breast cancer mammogram smear test screening - Peter Nicholls/AFP via Getty Images

On Tuesday, she told the launch of the Hologic Global Women’s Health Index in London: “If [someone] has a mammogram which is reported as normal today and she developed, for example, a precancerous lesion next month, she will then be waiting [until her next check], when it may well have become invasive, in the belief that she’s fine.

“If you have yearly mammography – and I appreciate that’s an expensive resource – there are very good studies demonstrating how many lives you save.”

The leading expert said very early onset or pre-cancerous lesions, which can be detected by screening, were curable.

Dame Lesley revealed that she personally experienced “several instances” of such lesions, but was now confident she would “die of something else” because they had been detected in good time.

The NHS needed to be “much more innovative” to tackle breast cancer, such as using artificial intelligence technology to read mammograms, as there was a chronic shortage of radiologists, she said.

‘Cervical cancer is a preventable disease’

The women’s health ambassador, and former president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, also criticised the UK’s recent record on preventing cervical cancer.

“I really do think it’s shameful that women are getting cervical cancer in this day and age,” she said. “Cervical cancer is a preventable disease. We have a vaccine, which is incredibly effective, and we have a screening programme which we led the world on.

“The sadness, I think, is in the fact that we now have the lowest uptake of screenings for the last 20 years. And that is really a problem that translates into a very large number of advanced cancers by 2040, which is not that far away.”

NHS figures show that about 69.9 per cent of women aged 25-64 attended cervical cancer checks in 2021-22, a slight decrease on 70.2 per cent the previous year.

In addition, government data show that uptake of the HPV vaccine, which prevents cervical cancer, dropped by seven per cent in girls and 8.7 per cent in boys in 2021-22 compared with the previous year.