The reality of delays in breast cancer treatment

The treatment for breast cancer at public hospitals should never be as frightening as the diagnosis itself. But for many patients, who can’t afford private care, this quickly becomes a reality. In light of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Isabelle Coetzee has a look at how long women with breast cancer have to wait for treatment.

In 2015, surgeons Ebrahim Dalwai and Ines Buccimazza researched the delays in diagnosing breast cancer at the R. K. Khan (RKK) public hospital, in Kwa-Zulu Natal.

They found that patients had to attend a minimum of four consultations at RKK before being referred to a tertiary institution where their diagnosis had to be confirmed, and surgery could take place.

The waiting time in-between the four consultations, including the period before arriving at the tertiary institution, added up to 70 days (on average)  In other words, patients spent over two months waiting for a confirmed diagnosis of a life-threatening disease.

The report further discussed the effect this may have on a patient’s survival rate. According to their sources, “delays exceeding three months were associated with an increased mortality rate.”

Although patients at RKK did not have to wait this long, their waiting time still exceeded the acceptable delay period of six weeks. On average, these patients had to spend approximately 10 weeks waiting for treatment – an entire month longer than the international standard.

But this reality is not limited to RKK, or Kwa-Zulu Natal. Dr Liana Roodt, specialist surgeon at Groote Schuur Hospital in the Western Cape, claims that some patients have to wait up to 14 weeks for treatment.

She points out that this wait is often accompanied by feelings of isolation as her patients try to make sense of a daunting diagnosis.

After watching women suffer in this chaotic environment, Dr Roodt decided to create Project Flamingo – a non-profit organisation that aims to streamline the process of breast cancer surgery for both newly-diagnosed and existing breast cancer patients.

“Project Flamingo raises funds to reduce the waiting time for surgery by covering costs for additional theatre time and nursing staff at Groote Schuur and Tygerberg hospitals and has a group of surgeons and anaesthetists who donate their time and skills as volunteers,” Dr Roodt explains.

“Thanks to the project we have managed to reduce the surgery waiting time significantly at both hospitals, which is currently a mere two weeks at Tygerberg,” she adds.

So far Project Flamingo has helped hundreds of women with breast cancer, and they also continue to hand out over 200 pamper packs each month to women who are diagnosed – a gesture of care and hope.

This month, Dr Roodt is dividing her time between the Groote Schuur Hospital and Advanced Health’s day hospital in Vergelegen, as well as continuing her work with the Flamingo Project.

Upon hearing more, Advanced Vergelegen has pledged to sponsor four surgeries through Project Flamingo in October, as well as contribute future funding.

According to the Cancer Association of South Africa (Cansa), breast cancer is the second most common cancer among South African (SA) women, and in 2013 it amounted to 0.7% of all deaths in the country.

“Early detection and diagnosis, reduces the severity of the disease and also decreases the mortality rate. Research has shown that a regular breast self-examination plays an important role in discovering breast cancer, compared to finding a breast lump by chance,” says Elize Joubert, Cansa CEO.

“We encourage all women to conduct regular self-examinations once a month. Cansa advocates a mammogram every year for all women from age 40 for purposes of non-symptomatic breast screening. Women 55 years and older should change to having a mammogram every two years – or have the choice to continue with an annual mammogram,” she explains.

During October, the Radiological Society of South Africa (RSSA) is offering mammography’s at a reduced fee at all their affiliated clinics throughout the country. Find your closest clinic by clicking here.