Breast cancer advocates call for free mammogram age-range to be extended in NZ

There’s frustration the Government’s plan to progressively extend free breast cancer screening to women aged 70 to 74 has been shelved due to the financial impacts of Covid-19.

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At the moment they’re only funded for women aged 45-69 in New Zealand. Source: 1 NEWS

“We are very, very disappointed because it is a question of priority,” Breast Cancer Foundation NZ chief executive Evangelia Henderson said.

“Yes, Covid has been an enormous priority for everybody and for our health system but that hasn’t stopped cancer, it hasn’t stopped women getting breast cancer… more women will be dying from breast cancer than Covid so to say that it’s not important enough for us to make that a priority, to put aside some money… and as I say it’s not an expensive thing because it’s two screenings.”

In a statement, Health Minister Chris Hipkins said the Government remains committed to the New Zealand First-Labour coalition priority announced three years ago, but due to the pandemic the extension couldn’t be progressed in this year’s Budget.

"Extending the age for breast screening will be revisited as conditions allow," he said in the statement.

New Zealand First MP Tracey Martin said finding out the planned extension would require a costly upgrade to Breast Screening Aotearoa’s national IT infrastructure system was one reason progressing action was delayed.

She said the party remains committed to the priority.

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Breast cancer survivor Pat Mravicich said free screening should continue even past the age limit of 74 being considered, with women having a lot of life left to live after 69.

“I know of women here in the village, a dear lady whose just had a mastectomy and that was as a result of knowing that I had been and had a mammogram done and she thought maybe she should be checked out.

“I think for a lot of women out there who might not have that money, that leisure dollar there, it’s very, very important that the Government looks after them,” she said.

An analysis of the proposed extension completed by the Ministry of Health in May last year said the breast cancer death rate for women aged 70-74 years old could be reduced by at least a third and national treatment trends would change as more cancer would be found earlier when treatment may be less invasive.

But it says significant investment would be necessary, with extra locations or additions to screening sites necessary, as well as new equipment and more staff.

"There are currently shortages of the specialist workforce required for breast screening, both in New Zealand and internationally," the analysis states.

The report also says measures to increase the rate of Māori and Pasifika women who take part in screenings would be necessary alongside the extension, otherwise the death rate from breast cancer between Māori, Pasifika women and other women would increase.

More Māori and Pasifika women die from cancer than women of other ethnicities.

Breast surgeon Dr Ineke Meredith said the system is at capacity.

“You can’t tell a woman she’s got an abnormality and then not be able to offer her a treatment in the allocated amount of time that’s acceptable,” she said.

“Realistically, the first change that we’re going to see is this increase of age eligibility… that’s going to take some time to come into effect, we’re probably talking 12 months best case scenario… any extension beyond that to an earlier age bracket or even to consider density is some time away.”

But Papakura mother Elizabeth Nau, aged 39, is calling for younger women to have access to free mammograms too and says it should be a priority.

Nau was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer during the Covid-19 lockdown.

“Finding it earlier would be much better because then it gives you, like myself, a sense of, ‘Yay, I’m still going to be here… long',” she said.

Nau said the Government should also act to improve awareness among women of the risk of breast cancer and to get mammograms.

“The system needs a real big change… I know some Pacific Island ladies, they’re probably too shy to go and get checked but it’s best for them to get checked – we just never know,” she said.

“I used to think, ‘Oh, nah, I’m not going to get any of these sicknesses or illnesses, nah, that’s not going to be me… but then, you just never know'.”