Breast cancer helpline founder’s fury over screening fiasco

A breast cancer screening error that may have shortened up to 270 lives has been branded “lax and appalling” by the founder of a regional helpline.

Wendy Watson, who set up Chesterfield-based charity National Hereditary Breast Cancer Helpline, said she had been left angered by the revelation that around 450,000 women failed to receive letters inviting them to cancer screenings.

It has been reported that the national helpline number has already received 8,000 calls and Breast Cancer Care has taken four times as many calls as usual since the news broke on Wednesday.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said up to 270 lives could have been cut short by the error and the 309,000 of those who are still alive would receive letters my the end of May to arrange catch-up mammograms.

Ms Watson, of Bakewell in North Derbyshire, campaigned fiercely against medical cynicism about hereditary breast cancer to have Britain’s first preventative double mastectomy in 1992 after her mother and grandmother both died of cancer.

She said: “Computers are alright as long as whoever is inputting the information is doing it correctly, and provided there are checks to make sure it is being done correctly. And there clearly hasn’t been. And the result is 270 lives lost,” she said.

“Now whatever I might’ve done wrong in my time I have never ever done anything as lax as that and I think it’s appalling.”

Public Health England said it was not recognised as a national issue until January this year, even though NHS trusts had raised IT concerns as early as March 2017.

Ms Watson, 63, said the news may remind some women to get themselves checked.

“There is always a spin-off with publicity in that it is good insofar that it does raise awareness, but that is no help to the people that have suffered and lost their lives,” she said. 

Hundreds of thousands of women did not receive invitations to go for breast cancer screenings.

Ms Watson’s groundbreaking surgery in 1992 paved the way for the likes of Angelina Jolie and Sharon Osbourne, who have also undergone the procedure.

It has become something of a medical trend in recent years with more and more women choosing to have a double mastectomy in the early stages of breast cancer over the traditional lumpectomy, which normally saves the breast.

Doctors branded Ms Watson “mad” for demanding the removal of her healthy breasts, but after identifying nine close relatives who had died from cancer she was convinced there was a hereditary link.

“I went to my GP and said do not tell me this isn’t hereditary because I just won’t believe you,” she said.

“I thought, if it’s important to catch it early, what I really needed to do was to catch it before it had even started, hence have the breast tissue removed. When I came up with that logic I couldn’t see a single flaw in the argument.”

Ms Watson’s fight against the medical community nearly 30 years ago saw a documentary get produced about her. She also organised a hereditary breast cancer awareness week that was supported by Princess Diana.

She said she can closely relate to those who might be extremely concerned about the screening errors.

“I did publicity, I did a documentary and got contacted by two young girls who had had three generations die in their twenties from breast cancer, yet their oncologist didn’t want to hear about preventative surgery,” she said.

“I rang him and he said: my dear, just because you’ve been on television do you think you know more about my job than I do?

“I said it’s got nothing to do with jobs and televisions, it’s to do with patient perspectives and how it feels to be at risk.”

Those who believe they may be affected should call the breast cancer screening helpline on 0800 169 2692 or visit the NHS Choices website for more information.