FROM THE HEART: Louisa Short, 9, leads sister Rebecca, 15, left, mum Debbie and sister Jacinda, 13, in presenting a       petition for free breast screening for women over 40 to Parliament.
ROB KITCHIN/Dominion Post

Crusade on breast screening

19 November 2003


The Short family has delivered a message to Parliament loud and clear along with 124,000 other New Zealanders

breast screening should be offered free to women from the age of 40.

Under the national breast screening programme, women aged 50 to 64 are offered free routine mammograms, but Health Minister Annette King said this would be widened to include women up to 70.

The 124,000-signature petition handed to NZ First MP Brian Donnelly yesterday is part of the family's crusade after mother Debbie Short was diagnosed with eight breast tumours at the age of 44.

By the time it was caught, the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and chest. She had her left breast removed and has undergone chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

"If I had been eligible for screening it would have been picked up earlier and my prognosis would be better," she said.

Breast cancer kills more than 600 New Zealand women each year, a death rate 28 per cent higher than Australia, where annual mammograms are free from the age of 40. Overseas studies have shown death rates are significantly reduced if women aged 40 to 49 are routinely screened.

The petition was tabled in Parliament yesterday and is expected to be considered by a select committee. Ms King said any decision to lower the age of routine screening would be made based on scientific evidence.

Mr Donnelly said the Government could not ignore the petition. Breast cancer was not just a women's issue it affected fathers, husbands, partners, children and grandchildren.

A friend of the Shorts, Vicky Lomey, 38, who has just returned to New Zealand after having breast cancer treatment in Australia, said it was unacceptable that in her darkest hours her family could not be with her. She had months of treatment in Australia.

Women are waiting up to 15 weeks in parts of New Zealand for radiation therapy. Guidelines indicate treatment should be delivered within four weeks.

A shortage of radiation therapists has been mostly to blame for the long waits and, since 2001, 163 women have been treated in Australia at a cost of $2.6 million. Ms King said long waits would be over by next month when more therapists would graduate.