Breast cancer patients in England face delays to reconstruction surgery

Women waiting for breast reconstruction surgery on the NHS in England face a “postcode lottery” of care, with some forced to wait more than three years, a damning report warns.

Two in five women (40%) waiting for breast reconstruction during the pandemic after having their breasts removed due to cancer faced a delay of 24 months or longer, according to research involving 1,246 women who either underwent reconstruction surgery or were waiting for it.

The report by charity Breast Cancer Now also warned that some breast reconstruction services are still not operating at full capacity after temporarily pausing at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It says there was a 34% drop in breast reconstruction activity in England in 2021-22 compared with 2018-19. The charity added that on top of the delays, women face a “postcode lottery” of care, with some women offered certain types of reconstruction while others are denied the same operation.

Breast Cancer Now called on NHS England to develop a plan to address the backlog of breast reconstruction services.

One woman told the authors of the report she waited for three and a half years for breast reconstruction surgery, while another said she “wants to move on with my life” but has no idea when her surgery will go ahead.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of Breast Cancer Now, said: “For women who choose breast reconstruction, it is a core component of their recovery – far from a solely aesthetic choice, this is the reconstruction of their body and indeed their identity after they have been unravelled by breast cancer treatment and surgery.

“We hear of patients affected by delays to reconstruction surgery and the significant emotional impact this has on them, including altered body confidence, loss of self-esteem and identity, anxiety and depression, and hindering their ability to move forward with their lives, knowing their treatment is incomplete.

“This is why we’re so deeply concerned at our research revealing that women are too often being denied vital access to the type of breast reconstruction that is right for them and equally critically at the right time.

“Barriers must be removed and access to reconstruction must be timely, fair, supported and informed for all women who choose it.

“As the NHS works to recover from backlogs of surgery that built up during the pandemic, we must urgently address these failings and put breast reconstruction on a much sounder footing for the sake of women, both now and in the future.

“We call on NHSE to work in partnership with us, the Association of Breast Surgery (ABS) and the British Association of Plastic Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons (BAPRAS) to develop a practical plan for breast reconstruction services that addresses the backlog, removes barriers and ensures timely and fair access to reconstruction for all women who want it.”

Carlie-Ann Hare, 32, from Birmingham, was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2020 and had a single mastectomy, and is still waiting for reconstruction surgery.

“I’ve had very little information about how much longer I will be waiting for my breast reconstruction surgery,” she said.

“It’s really tough, and I have had self-esteem issues as a result of waiting. I just want to know when it will be happening so I can move on with my life.”

The Guardian has approached NHS England for comment.

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