Budget 2023: Breast cancer survivors, advocates 'braced for disappointment' as Govt's promise to extend free screening remains unfulfilled

It's estimated that one woman every month has lost their life to breast cancer since 2017 due to the current age cap on free screening.

In Aotearoa, eligible women aged 45 to 69 can have a free mammogram every two years. However, the Breast Cancer Foundation has been campaigning for the free screening service to be extended until the age of 74, a five-year difference that would allow women to undergo a further two free screenings: one of which could make the difference between life and death. 

In 2017, Labour promised it would extend free screening until the age of 74 in the hope of saving up to 65 lives a year: but as of 2023, that promise has yet to be fulfilled. The Breast Cancer Foundation estimates it would cost approximately $10 million a year to extend the free screening service, covering another two mammograms for women who are already aged 69. 

With May 18 marking Budget Day, breast cancer advocates and survivors are bracing themselves for further disappointment that the commitment will be overlooked for a sixth year. 

"It's incredulous to us that this is happening. The Government promised us in 2017, we've got the evidence that it will save lives, the Minister of Health and health officials all accept the evidence, so we cannot understand why this isn't being prioritised. We continue to be told it is not a priority," the Breast Cancer Foundation CEO Ah-Leen Rayner told AM on Thursday ahead of the Budget announcement. 

"The international best practice is to screen to within 10 years of life expectancy. Across all ethnicities in New Zealand, the average woman aged 70 today is expected to live to 84, so what that means is the current age of 69 is completely outdated. It's another thing New Zealand is falling behind with, in terms of the world stage."

For breast cancer survivor Bette Cosgrove, the Government's inaction since 2017 is a kick in the teeth: her 80-year-old aunt is currently battling metastatic breast cancer, and Cosgrove believes her life would look different if she had access to free screening into her 70s. 

"If in her 70s she'd been getting those notifications to come in for free mammograms, potentially this could've been caught earlier, and she wouldn't be living with the death sentence that she is now," she told AM. 

"There's been political will to do this for years. I expected it would be happening and I don't understand the reasoning behind not doing it - why would you not?"

"This isn't a hard thing, it's simple - we know it'll save lives," Rayner added. "We are absolutely braced for disappointment and more women to be impacted."

Watch the video above.