A few hundred women will be unaware they may have breast cancer because of irregular screening in South Eastern Sydney Local Health District

Up to 300 women in the local health district won’t even know they have breast cancer, new figures reveal.

In the South Eastern Sydney Local Health District, 290 women living in the area will be undiagosed because they have not done a mammogram in the past two years.

The data, released by the Cancer Institute NSW during Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October), reveals that 45,895 women aged 50-74 in the region are either overdue for a mammogram or have never had one. 

BreastScreen NSW director of South Eastern Sydney Illawarra, Robyn Schubert, hopes this new information will encourage all women in this age bracket to have a potentially life-saving test and make simple lifestyle changes to reduce their risk.

“Encouragingly, overall screening numbers across the state are on the rise, which shows our life-saving message is getting across,” Ms Schubert said.

“However, each year 950 women in NSW die from breast cancer. 

“Women tend to have a perception breast cancer is common, but don’t think it will happen to them. That’s why it can be easy to forget to schedule a mammogram or not make it a priority.

“Mammograms are the best way to detect breast cancer before it can be seen or felt, which allows for less invasive treatment and better recovery.”

The government’s national screening program, BreastScreen Australia, invites women aged 50–74 to undergo free mammograms every two years.

When Engadine’s Louisa Wessels was told she had stage 4 breast cancer, she was surprised and shocked.

She was first diagnosed in 2004, and in 2015 discovered the cancer was terminal. She is now encouraging other women to get regular checks. 

“Don’t put it off,” she said. “I was only 44 when I was diagnosed so I didn’t have regular mammograms. 

“When my sister was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I ignored my own health, and when I found a lump, it was already quite advanced and had spread.”

Ms Wessels was motivated to support the McGrath Foundation, after breast care nurse, Kim Wright, was a friend in need during her treatment at Sutherland Hospital.

Team patchwork: Holly McMasters from the McGrath Foundation, oncologist Jodi Lynch, Louisa Wessels and breast care nurse Kim Wright with Amy Bloomfield, director of nursing Jan Heiler, Sharon Maloney and Angela McGrath from The Crafty Hive Loftus. Picture: John Veage

Team patchwork: Holly McMasters from the McGrath Foundation, oncologist Jodi Lynch, Louisa Wessels and breast care nurse Kim Wright with Amy Bloomfield, director of nursing Jan Heiler, Sharon Maloney and Angela McGrath from The Crafty Hive Loftus. Picture: John Veage

Together with the owner of The Crafty Hive at Loftus, Angela McGrath, and Black Sheep Quilting, plus the help of up to 60 women, three quilts were made. 

One was raffled with more than $2500 being donated to the foundation, and the other two will be donated to the hospital’s oncology unit.

“I was making quilts to give to family and friends as a way to remember me,” Ms Wessels said.

“People love wrapping themselves in a quilt – it makes them feel like they’re cared for.”

“I thought I’d give back to the people who helped me. The idea of giving something back has touched quite a few people, many I will never meet.”

Since mid-2015, the Cancer Institute has invested more than $4 million on public awareness and education campaigns for breast cancer screening. It has also rewarded more than $2.5 million to community, health and primary care organisations to promote screening.

In 2018-19, more than $7 million is being invested towards the South Eastern Sydney Illawarra BreastScreen Screening and Assessment Service.

Screening participation rates are driven by factors including population growth and culturally and linguistically diverse communities, which have lower rates of screening. 

The Cancer Institute targets these communities through partnerships, services and funding, including $700,000 since 2016 to improve breast screening participation among culturally diverse populations.

Science prize: University student Grace Tang, 21, studied the role of a protein in breast cancer growth as part of her studies. Recent statistics also reveal many women in the local health district may be unaware they have the disease.

Science prize: University student Grace Tang, 21, studied the role of a protein in breast cancer growth as part of her studies. Recent statistics also reveal many women in the local health district may be unaware they have the disease.

Breast cancer is also gaining the attention of the next up and coming generation of researchers. A young university student who is passionate about the causes of breast cancer, recently received a prize for her studies in the field.

Grace Tang, of Kogarah, was rewarded with a science and clinical research prize at the 2018 St George and Sutherland Medical Research symposium in October.

As part of her fourth year research, the medical student from the University of NSW paired with a cancer facility to examine the protein LRG1, which is found in breast cancer patients.

Her research involved observing blood and urine samples that showed the protein was present in higher amounts in breast cancer patients.

“We could pick anywhere we wanted to study and in any field, and I’ve always been interested in oncology,” Ms Tang, 21, said.

“It was about questioning why this is elevated. Experiments proved that this protein assisted cells in their ability to grow, migrate and invade the rest of the body.”

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