More than 50,000 women in New Zealand are overdue for their mammograms amid claims the health system hasn't kept up with cancer screening due to COVID-19 disruptions.
The Breast Cancer Foundation is pleading with the Government to act, and has now started a campaign called '#GiveUsOurMammograms' to try and stop women from going undiagnosed and untreated.
Breast cancer survivors say mammograms saved their lives.
"Without a mammogram, my tumour is unlikely to have been diagnosed at that stage because it was right on my chest wall… it was only detected through a mammogram," said survivor Sarah Kane, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2020 after a four-month delay for her mammogram due to COVID-19 lockdowns.
She knows firsthand the devastating consequences that could be caused by the current mammogram backlog.
"What I do know is that four months, when you've got invasive cancer growing, is actually a long time and perhaps if it had been diagnosed sooner - the treatment and what I went through would have been a lot less than it needed to be," Kane said.
She said she was sad to know 50,000 New Zealand women were overdue for a mammogram.
"We know that, of those 50,000, there could be up to 300 people going around now with undetected and untreated breast cancer and I feel sad for those people because when it is detected it will be that much further down the track, and it will be a hard journey."
At a Pink Ribbon breakfast at Parliament on Thursday, Breast Cancer Foundation chief executive Ah-Leen Rayner implored people to join the #GiveUsOurMammogram campaign.
The foundation has called on the Government to commit $15 million for BreastScreen Aotearoa to urgently clear the mammogram backlog and prevent women from being diagnosed late.
"Doing nothing means we could lose all of the hard-won gains that we've made," Rayner said.
"With the Budget just one week away, we're asking New Zealanders to join our call to the Government: please act now to prevent avoidable deaths from breast cancer. When breast cancer is the number one killer of Kiwi women under the age of 65, breast screening is too important to neglect."
Rayner wasn't the only one voicing concern. ACT Party deputy leader and Health spokesperson Brooke van Velden said breast cancer was impacting too many New Zealanders.
"Lockdowns have taken a massive toll on New Zealanders," said van Velden, who hosted the Pink Ribbon breakfast. "We have repeatedly heard about the public health response to COVID-19 but so many other health issues have taken a back seat."
Auckland GP Heidi MacRae said she was overdue for a mammogram when she was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer in September.
Dr MacRae said her mammogram was initially delayed until December but insisted it was brought forward after the discovery of an unusual symptom.
"I absolutely believe that if I didn't have the level of health knowledge that I do and if I had not pushed to reschedule my mammogram, things would have turned out differently for me. I am so lucky to have found it before it did any more damage, I really count my blessings."
Last month, Ardern acknowledged breast screening was still catching up from last year's level 4 lockdowns.
"We do have an issue, of course, with the regular amount of screening we usually do being up and running but people who may have missed out previously because of level 4 environments also seeking to be screened," she told AM.
"In some localities, they've done a great job of trying to catch up. In others, particularly those that were affected by level 4 for long periods, there is extra work to do."
Ardern said she'd been discussing with ministers how services could be ramped up further as Omicron's burden on the health system eased.