Thousands of women could die from breast cancer after almost a million screening appointments were put on hold due to the pandemic.

Some 986,000 women missed their mammograms as checks were almost completely shut down for four months from March as the coronavirus outbreak took hold.

Around 8,600 could be living with undetected breast cancer, and experts fear a huge death toll as a result of delayed diagnosis.

And the screening backlog is likely to keep growing as capacity is cut by infection control measures and exhausted staff this winter.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at Breast Cancer Now which produced the figures, said: “This is cause for grave concern.

“Mammograms are a key tool in the early detection of breast cancer, which is critical to stopping women dying from the disease.

“We understand that the breast screening programme was paused out of necessity, but we must now press play to ensure all women can access breast screening – and we cannot afford for the programme to be paused again.”

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The vital treatment was paused (stock image)

When screening restarted in late summer there was a backlog of 838,000 in England, 78,000 in Scotland, 48,000 in Wales and 23,000 in Northern Ireland.

Mary Wilson, consultant breast radiologist at the Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester, said: “We desperately need more radiologists. As a nation we must recognise and address the workforce issues and invest in the NHS. There is no overnight fix.”

The NHS Breast Screening Programme helps detect breast cancer at the earliest possible stage, preventing an estimated 1,300 deaths each year.

Women of 50 to 71 are invited for a mammogram every three years, with over two million screened each year.

Leaked NHS data shows thousands of cancer patients are waiting over three months for a test, the outcome of a test, or treatment once diagnosed.

Some 6,400 people had waited over 100 days after a referral to cancer services, showed official data for England in mid-September seen by the Health Service Journal. This information had not been known because NHS England only publishes waiting times for patients who have been treated, not the number still waiting.

A consultant analyses a mammogram (stock image)

The number on the cancer waiting list soared from 50,000 at the start of August to around 58,000 in the middle of this month.

Prof Karol Sikora, former head of the World Health Organisation’s cancer programme, said: “Thousands more people can die from cancer as a result.”

The North East, Yorkshire and London regions had the most people waiting over three months.

NHS England said over four in five cancer treatments had been maintained. But Cancer specialists say they are seeing more patients in advanced stages of the disease.

Prof Rob Jones of the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre in Glasgow said there are delays from initial contact with GPs to investigation by specialists.

He said most appointments are still being held via phone or video calls, which can cause problems picking up cancers.

He added: “We saw far fewer newer referrals during the heat of the pandemic. We are now seeing a surge in patients and by default some will have more advanced disease. It’s inevitable if you delay presentation.

“The delays are not just about people being seen in hospitals, it’s delays in the ways people presented to their GPs, people were reluctant to trouble them.

“The delays are all the way through the pathway. Where the challenge lies is actually in healthcare. We are doing most of our consultations remotely, whereas previously it would have been face-to-face.”

There are 31 breast cancer deaths a day in the UK (stock image)

A report by Cancer Research UK found those in poorer areas have more trouble accessing cancer services, and are less likely to survive it as a result.

Those in disadvantaged areas in England are 50% more likely to be diagnosed in A&E, rather than have their cancer spotted earlier. They report more difficulties getting appointments at a suitable time or with a particular doctor, and are less likely to go for screening.

Michelle Mitchell, chief of Cancer Research UK, said: “Government must pay close attention to the widening gap between richer and poorer areas, injecting much-needed money into public health funding to help reduce this inequality. It must be addressed to prevent unnecessary death.”

There are around 11,400 breast cancer deaths in the UK every year – or 31 a day.

An NHS spokeswoman said: “The vast majority of cancers detected through screening programmes are at a very early stage and so any impact on patients who were due to be screened is extremely low. More than 200,000 people were treated for cancer during the peak of the pandemic.

“Breast screening services are fully up and running with over 400,000 women invited between June and August and thousands more invites sent every month.”

Older breast cancer patients are not being offered life-saving surgery or therapy on the false assumption they will not benefit, research suggests.

The study by Sheffield University found most women over 70 can tolerate surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy but are often only less aggressive forms of treatment, and that might be why those under 70 have a far higher survival rate.

Susan, 60: 'I found a lump 2 months after my postponed check'

Susan Daniels from Glynneath in South Wales who discovered a lump in her breast during lockdown and is currently waiting to start radiotherapy

Susan Daniels, 60, from Glynneath, South Wales, missed her routine breast screening due to the pause of the programme.

Two months later she found a lump in her breast and after getting it checked was diagnosed with breast cancer in June.

Susan had surgery and will soon be starting radiotherapy.

She said: “I have always attended my breast screening when invited, so when we moved to a new area I called up in March to arrange the appointment I was due. When I was advised that screening was on hold due to the pandemic, it was disappointing but I understood that Covid-19 was making everything difficult.

“At that time I was blissfully unaware that I might have breast cancer. I wasn’t always terribly good at checking my breasts, but at the beginning of May I discovered a lump.

“When it hadn’t disappeared after a few weeks I made an appointment to get it checked out. When I was given the news that I had breast cancer it was devastating and surreal. I felt like my body had let me down.

“May seems almost a lifetime ago and I know I’m one of the fortunate ones to have undergone diagnosis, surgery and soon radiotherapy in this time.

“Screening is vital for early detection, as is self-checking.

“I cannot even begin to know the distress experienced by anyone who is still awaiting an appointment.”

Karen 49: So lucky with early diagnosis

Karen King, from Southampton, Hampshire, was in total shock

Civil servant and mum-of-two Karen King was diagnosed with cancer last September after attending an NHS screening trial.

She finished treatment, including a lumpectomy and radiotherapy, in March, just ahead of the national lockdown.

Karen said: “My breast cancer was picked up by an early mammogram as part of a trial. I had no idea that anything was wrong.

“My diagnosis was a complete shock, I tried to be positive and brave, but I was very emotional. It has changed me as a person – I’m not as active as I used to be, it has affected my mental health and I worry about the cancer coming back.”

Karen, from Southampton, said: “I thank my lucky stars every single day that my breast cancer was caught early. I honestly believe that screening and my surgeon, saved my life by finding my breast cancer.”

She said the wait for routine mammograms caused by the pandemic will cause a lot of worry. Karen added: “I also have no idea if my annual mammogram will be affected when it’s due in December.”

Covid’s impact on NHS waiting lists

The Mirror has repeatedly told how missed cancer checks could be creating a deadly backlog.

In June we reported NHS waits to get tested for serious conditions including cancer had increased 16-fold.

Waits over six weeks increased from 30,000 to 469,000 after routine NHS care stalled.

Numbers waiting for MRI scans to detect tumours increased from 5,733 to 78,932.

GPs made 339,242 referrals in England between April and June, compared with 594,060 in the same period in 2019.