The face of Covid’s cancer crisis

Sheryl Woods fought off an aggressive cancer during the first lockdown.

Now a second lockdown means she, and potentially thousands of other patients, can’t get the health services she needs to tell her whether it’s back.

The Waikato woman was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in late 2019.

“They operated and found it had gone completely through my lymph nodes under my right arm. The lump in my breast was only a couple of centimetres large, but it had affected six lymph nodes.”

The 50-year-old didn’t require a mastectomy, but she did go through six months of chemotherapy.

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“And then I also underwent five weeks of radiotherapy after the chemo. And amongst all of that we had the first covid lockdown, so my radiotherapy, I had to do all alone. You can imagine it was a pretty bad time.”

Woods is now on a drug called tamoxifen for 10-years, and requires a mammogram and a specialist appointment every 12 months.

There’s an 83 per cent chance she’ll have another ten years, but a key part is getting her yearly mammogram and specialist check-up due to Covid-19 putting pressure on the health system.

Now overdue for her second mammogram, when Woods contacted Waikato Hospital for an appointment there were none available.

“To be told by the booking clerk, I am sorry we are so far behind, I can’t give you an appointment…

Sheryl Woods requires yearly mammograms.

MARK TAYLOR/Stuff

Sheryl Woods requires yearly mammograms.

“I explained to her, I have cancer. Her exact words to me were ‘90 per cent of the people on the waiting list have cancer’.”

Woods was told that the cyberattack which hit the Waikato DHB in May, and then Covid-19 lockdowns were the reasons for the delays.

“Safe to say I am a little stressed by the whole thing.

“They said we can always get you a mammogram, the problem is as I understand it I actually need a specialist to sit down with me to tell me what the mammogram says, and that is what the hold up is.”

Waikato DHB had not responded by deadline.

Woods is concerned due to how fast her cancer could progress.

“I had a clear mammogram less than 12 months before I was diagnosed with cancer, so that tells you how quickly it moves and how a matter of months can make a huge difference.”

Sheryl Woods is just concerned about her health but believes there must be a number of other women also missing out.

MARK TAYLOR/Stuff

Sheryl Woods is just concerned about her health but believes there must be a number of other women also missing out.

The Breast Cancer Foundation estimates at least 133 women across the country have no idea they have breast cancer right now,

The organisation is “gravely concerned” for those women who have missed having a mammogram that would have diagnosed them during the current Covid-19 lockdowns.

Waikato DBH has been affected by a cyber attack as well as Covid-19 lockdowns this year (file photo).

Christel Yardley/Stuff

Waikato DBH has been affected by a cyber attack as well as Covid-19 lockdowns this year (file photo).

The number of undetected breast cancer cases is expected to grow as both BreastScreen Aotearoa and private clinics deal with the fallout of extended lockdowns.

Breast Cancer Foundation research manager Adèle Gautier said there were issues in accessing mammograms in some regions.

“We are hearing from people who want to get their first mammogram and can’t get it, people who missed their mammogram over covid, and can’t book an appointment.

“And then there is the people in the follow-up time, which is a very worrying time… and then they’re told they can’t have it, It’s quite scary for a patient.”

Budget 21 allocated $10 million to the breast screening programme for population growth and catch up on breast screens missed due to Covid-19 lockdowns (file photo).

Rui Vieira /PA Images via Getty

Budget 21 allocated $10 million to the breast screening programme for population growth and catch up on breast screens missed due to Covid-19 lockdowns (file photo).

“To be told they don’t know how long the delay is, that is really unsettling for her and there needs to be a plan to get everyone back through.

“Breast cancer is the leading cause of death for New Zealand women under 65, so from our point of view it should never be put on the back burner, especially for someone who has already had a diagnosis of breast cancer, it’s not something which should be fobbed off or put aside.”

The Breast Cancer Foundation wants to see an immediate investment to get rid of the Covid related backlogs.

A Ministry of Health spokesperson said breast screening appointments have been affected by Covid-19 and by the Waikato DHB cyber attack.

Appointments were able to recommence from Alert Level 3.

”All available appointment slots are booked. Additional sessions are planned. The service is exploring the possibility of increasing capacity to be able to screen more women.”

The Ministry said Budget 21 allocated the breast screening programme $10 million to match population growth and catch up on breast screens missed due to Covid-19 lockdowns.

“Additional funding was required to catch up on appointments for women who had their screening appointments cancelled or delayed.”

The Ministry is mindful that recovering the rates pre-pandemic will take time and a long-term goal may be more realistic than short-term catch-up.

“This catch-up is not solely about funding. It will require additional specialist staff and access to facilities.”

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