BreastCheck back to pre-pandemic levels of screening, TDs told

Women asked to ‘please attend’ appointments to limit possible impact of cancer

BreastCheck, the national screening service for breast cancer, has returned to pre-pandemic levels of assessment and screening, an Oireachtas committee has heard.

Prof Fidelma Flanagan, BreastCheck’s lead clinical director, said around 15,000 women were assessed last month, the same number as in September 2019, following a period of significant disruption related to Covid-19.

She said the service had closed for nine months in all during the pandemic but that referrals of women by GPs for cancer screening had continued.

Some 170,000 women per year were screened before the pandemic, but the number of mammograms carried out under the service fell by more than two-thirds last year, leading to the detection of 600 fewer breast cancers.


BreastCheck routinely screens women aged between 50 and 70 for early signs of cancer, but the routine nature of the service means the women are considered low-risk. Higher-risk cases would be referred by their doctors, she told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health.

Prof Flanagan said the essential message to all women was to “please attend” their screening appointments. The vital thing, she said, was for those who had concerns to contact their GP for a referral rather than waiting for a routine call.

Most common

Prof Risteárd Ó Laoide, national director of the National Cancer Control Programme, told the committee that breast cancer remains the most common cause of invasive cancer in women in Ireland, with about 3,500 cases diagnosed annually. The National Cancer Registry predicts this will rise to 4,650 by 2045, the committee heard.

Prof Ó Laoide said the incidence rate of breast cancer had increased by around 2 per cent per year between 1994 and 2008, “partly due to improved levels of detection” and had levelled off since then.

“Crucially though, mortality rates from breast cancer have shown a consistent downward trend, decreasing by around 2 per cent each year from 1994 to 2016, supported by earlier diagnosis and improvements in treatment.”

He said the first line of defence against most disease, including cancer, was prevention through not smoking; maintaining a healthy weight; limiting alcohol consumption and being active. He said breast cancer awareness was an important tool in early detection of cancer “and we welcome the focus that Breast Cancer Awareness Month” – which continues up to October 31st - places on this.

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is an Irish Times journalist