A cancer survivor with a strong family history of the disease was shocked when she learned recently that she’s no longer allowed to refer herself for mammograms because she’s beyond the age of 70.

75-year-old Anne Boyd has been touched by cancer in a number of ways. Both her parents suffered from the disease, and nearly all five of her siblings also dealt with it. So it wasn’t a total surprise when she developed cancer. Her mother and sister were diagnosed with breast cancer. Her father died of lung cancer, and three of her siblings also died of cancer.

Anne was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in 1997 after a routine mammogram. She had a lumpectomy and radiotherapy and made a full recovery, but she’s been getting regular mammograms three times a year since then to prevent it from happening again, because she credits a mammogram with saving her life the first time.

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Anne says she’s never missed a mammogram appointment, because she’s dedicated to keeping herself healthy and catching cancer early. But recently, everything changed.

Since COVID-19 happened, healthcare facilities in Anne’s area have changed their policies in an attempt to keep more people safe from the virus. One of those changes makes a huge difference in Anne’s cancer prevention plans.

NHS Scotland offers mammograms every three years to women between the ages of 50 and 70, but patients have traditionally been able to self-refer after the age of 70 if they wish to continue having mammograms. Now that’s no longer the case. So patients like Anne, even though they may have a strong family history or personal history of cancer, cannot get screening for the disease.

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Anne first learned about the change when she tried to schedule an appointment with a mobile scanning unit that was set to visit the area and was turned down because of her age.

“I think it’s ludicrous,” says Anne. “They’re more or less saying to me, ‘If you find something, go to your doctor,’ by which time it might be too late. I wouldn’t have known I had breast cancer [in 1997] unless I had gone to the van. There were no symptoms. I had no lump that I could feel.

“And my friend – she’s 78 – very recently had breast cancer. She had a mastectomy, and she said if it hadn’t been for the van it wouldn’t have been picked up.”

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The Scottish government says the change is temporary and cited the fact that the benefits of screening women over 70 are not “fully established.” However, the rule has not gone back to its original state since the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions.

“This is a temporary measure that is being regularly reviewed and will be lifted as soon as possible,” a spokesman said. “In the meantime, we are working closely with health boards to monitor and address the capacity challenges Covid-19 has created. Work is also underway across the UK to review the benefits of screening people over 71, and the issue of self-referrals for those aged over 70 is being considered in the review of the Scottish breast screening programme. The current age range is based on evidence about the risks and benefits of screening people at different ages.”

However, not everyone agrees with the current rules. Scottish Labour’s health and COVID recovery spokeswoman, Jackie Baillie, had this to say:

“Not restarting self-referrals for the over 70s and the SNP’s failure to meet the 36-month frequency target means women are missing out on this vital care. This will only add to the growing cancer care crisis we are facing.”

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Luckily, Anne is not struggling alone. Her general practitioner is trying to arrange an appointment for her at a breast screening clinic.

“I might have to go to Campbeltown which is 70 miles away, but wherever it is I’ll go. I would go to Glasgow to get it done,” says Anne.

Anne urges others who have mammogram appointments to show up to them, saying she’s seen lots of appointments go to waste while other people are desperate to get one.

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