“I was worried it would grow and spread,” Charlotte Park, a breast cancer patient tells The Independent. “What happens if I hadn’t been that really pushy person? Sometimes I still go into a dark place and I think: I am so lucky to be here.”
The 50-year-old, from Richmond in Yorkshire, found a lump in her breast in June 2020 and went straight to see her GP who informed her she would have to wait two weeks to see a specialist. After a fortnight of waiting, she started to panic and rang the clinic who said they were still working through referrals from four to six weeks prior to her referral.
“I was getting frustrated and impatient by this point,” Ms Park recalls. “There was no leeway and they didn’t see if they could squeeze me in. I just felt frustrated. There was nothing I could do. It was all out of my hands. I was feeling teary.”
Ms Park is one of thousands of women with breast cancer in England facing delays of weeks or months to see a specialist or receive treatment. Data, shared exclusively with The Independent, shows delays were substantially worse for those with breast cancer than other forms of cancer.
The data, from Breast Cancer Now, a leading charity, reveals around two thirds of women were seen by a specialist within two weeks of an urgent GP referral for suspected breast cancer between January and November last year. Meanwhile, almost eight in ten people with other forms of cancer were seen by a specialist within two weeks.
The figures for breast cancer and other forms of cancer are still dramatically below the NHS target wait time which stipulates 93 per cent of all urgent suspected cancer referrals should have had an appointment with a specialist within a fortnight of their GP visit.
In the end, Ms Park was forced to wait 25 days to see a specialist. The wait was “agony”, she said. It was difficult to definitively determine if the delays caused her cancer to grow, she noted.
“Given the fact it was aggressive, there was no reason why it couldn’t have,” she says. “It went to two of my lymph nodes - it was obviously on the move.”
The situation was worsened by the fact her husband was away with the army in Afghanistan while she was waiting, she said.
“I had a few moments where I would sit and cry,” she recalls. “You have got that time waiting where you are thinking 'why me?'. You just want answers as soon as possible. If I hadn’t demanded answers, I would have had to wait at least six weeks in total.”
Ms Park got back in touch with her GP who managed to get her an appointment. She was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer after seeing a specialist at the end of July 2020, she added.
She was informed her cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, but it could be removed with six months of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, a full lymph node clearance, as well as radiotherapy, she said. It took 68 days from her suspected breast cancer referral to beginning treatment due to pandemic-related backlogs, Ms Park recalled.
“The waiting is harder than the treatment,” Ms Park, who now has a clear CT scan and mammogram, reflects. “I have scans and yearly mammograms. That involves waiting again. It is frustrating. Other women I have spoken to say it is the waiting for the specialist that is hardest.”
Her comments come in the context of thousands of women with breast cancer being forced to wait longer than the NHS-recommended time of two months to get treatment, in a situation branded “perilous” by healthcare professionals. Exclusive data shows only seven in ten women in England received treatment for breast cancer two months after getting an urgent doctor’s referral between January and November 2022.
This amounts to just more than 16,500 women and is way below the NHS target for 85 per cent of breast cancer patients diagnosed via an urgent GP referral to start their cancer treatment within two months of their GP visit.
Addie Mitchell, a clinical nurse specialist who works on Breast Cancer Now’s helpline, explained callers are often in tears and they are “hearing from people who are waiting for urgent referrals,” with waiting times worse in some parts of Britain than others.
“The strain on GP services also means that there are difficulties in getting an appointment with the GP, which is really concerning,” she says.
The helpline hears from women facing delays for their treatment to begin, Ms Mitchell said, as she warned calls about “poor mental health” are rising, with people expressing “frustration and anxiety”.
A spokesperson for NHS England said: “The NHS saw more than a thousand more people referred with suspected breast cancer within the two-week target in November 2022 than before the pandemic. We would urge anyone with any concerns to come forward for treatment because the NHS is here for them.”
Breast cancer is the most prevalent type of cancer in the UK and the disease claims around 11,500 women’s lives every year. One in seven women in Britain will develop breast cancer at one point in their life – with one woman diagnosed every 10 minutes.
“The sooner breast cancer is diagnosed, the better chances of the treatment being successful and potentially life-saving,“ Melanie Sturtevant, of Breast Cancer Now, whose analysis is based on NHS England figures, says. ”We have an increase in the number of people waiting longer to start treatment.”
Ms Sturtevant called for “urgent action to do better” as well as “faster” for those with breast cancer as she urged the government to recognise the “breast cancer workforce is understaffed and overstretched and address this perilous situation through a fully-funded long-term workforce plan.”