First the statistics: an international study last year found that Ireland has one of the highest mortality rates from breast cancer in the Western world. That report, by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, said that 28% of women diagnosed with breast cancer in Ireland in 2004 died from the disease. Breast Cancer Ireland reckons breast cancer is responsible for an average of 644 Irish female deaths each year, making it the leading cause of cancer related deaths in women in Ireland.

The ‘economic downturn’ that we’re all sick to the back teeth of hearing about is taking its toll on all aspects of our lives, with the Government’s decision to introduce next year’s Budget six weeks early, on October 14, sure to lighten our purses even further. But have you considered how these cutbacks are putting your life at risk? And how this penny-pinching could actually create a ‘life or death’ situation for someone you know and love?

For example, are you one of the women over 50 who won’t be able to avail of her free routine breast cancer X-ray in Waterford Regional Hospital in the coming months following a directive from Professor Tom Keane, the national director of Cancer Control, to refuse you such a screening unless you’re actually showing signs of having breast cancer? Even though your age puts you at greatest risk of the disease. Maybe you’ve read all the warnings about breast cancer in the media and want to be proactive about your own health care? Well tough luck, because the Government needs to save a few bob.

The goal of screening exams for early breast cancer detection is to find cancers before they start to cause symptoms and breast cancers that are found because they are causing symptoms tend to be larger and more likely to have already spread beyond the breast. In contrast, breast cancers found during screening exams are more likely to be smaller and still confined to the breast. The size of a breast cancer and how far it has spread are some of the most important factors in predicting the prognosis of a woman with this awful disease.

The decision to withdraw free X-rays from hospitals for women in this age group has been condemned by several groups. Christine Murphy Whyte is chairwoman of Europa Donna, which campaigns for improved breast cancer services and she says the Government’s decision sends out mixed messages to women about the value of mammograms for this age group.

Most doctors feel that early detection tests for breast cancer save many thousands of lives each year and that many more lives could be saved if even more women took advantage of these tests. And yet the Government has done away with their provision. So a woman being prudent about her health must now pay for her routine mammogram, if she can afford it, or else leave things to chance and hope for the best. According to Breastcheck, health checks tend to be ad-hoc rather than routine and reactive rather than pro-active, with cost cited as a deterrence amongst many women. Hence this latest cutback means some women could potentially have a breast cancer diagnosis delayed, diminishing their chances of survival before they even know they’re ill.

Mind you, we fare a little better here than women in the south and west of the country. A mobile Breastcheck unit, which invites women aged 50-64 for free mammograms, is currently stationed in Scanlan’s Yard in Dungarvan. This unit is anticipated to move on to Waterford city once the 3,000-plus Dungarvan waiting list has been worked through.

Screening is offered to eligible women by personal invitation on a two year cycle and you’re name, should you fall into the 50-64 year category, will be made available to BreastCheck by the Department of Social and Family Affairs, General Medical Services and private health insurance providers. BreastCheck is allowed to source this information under The Health (Provision of Information Act) 1997.

It is possible to check whether you’re on BreastCheck’s register by entering your details into their online database so if you’re living in the Dungarvan area, are aged 50-64 and haven’t heard from them you should do so straight away. You can also check that you are on the BreastCheck register by calling freephone 1800 45 45 55. Female readers, please don’t hesitate to do so: should you have the misfortune to develop breast cancer, early detection could save your life.