The pandemic has posed many challenges for delivering cancer services in Ireland, an Oireachtas committee has been told.
Professor Risteard O Laoide, the HSE’s national director of the National Cancer Control Programme, said the past 18 months has been a “particularly difficult” time for people living with cancer.
Prof O Laoide told the Oireachtas Health Committee that despite ongoing challenges, symptomatic breast cancer clinics have continued throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
Breast cancer remains the most common cause of invasive cancer in women in Ireland.
Approximately 3,500 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed each year.
The National Cancer Registry predict this will rise to 4,650 by 2045, with one in seven women in Ireland expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.
“Today, as a result of historic capacity issues, Covid-19 and the cyber attack, breast cancer services are facing many challenges,” Prof O Laoide told the committee.
“The past 18 months have been a particularly difficult time for people living with cancer and it goes without saying that the Covid-19 pandemic had a significant impact on our ability to provide cancer services.
“Furthermore, the symptomatic breast service was significantly bolstered during this time through resources from temporarily paused screening services being diverted into symptomatic services.
“This ensured that urgent, at-risk patients were seen, diagnosed and treated quickly.”
He also told the committee that the cyber-attack had a “devastating effect” on the continuity of cancer services.
He said it was a “very difficult time” for patients, families and those providing care.
The incidence rate of breast cancer has increased over time, by around 2% per year between 1994 and 2008, partly due to improved levels of detection, and has levelled off since then.
Prof O Laoide said mortality rates from breast cancer have shown a consistent downward trend, decreasing by around 2% each year from 1994 to 2016.
He said that has been supported by earlier diagnosis and improvements in treatment.
It is estimated that approximately one quarter of breast cancers may be preventable through modifiable risk factors and environmental factors.
The majority of breast cancers are diagnosed through symptomatic breast disease clinics.
Each year in Ireland, approximately 42,000 women are referred to symptomatic breast clinics by their GP.
Roughly half of these are triaged as urgent referrals and approximately 2,500 to 3,000 of the women referred to these clinics will receive a subsequent diagnosis of breast cancer.
Most women with breast cancer will receive treatment with surgery, radiotherapy, systemic anti-cancer therapy or a combination of these, Prof O Laoide added.
Approximately 85% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have surgery and over 70% receive radiotherapy.