Like so many others, I was deeply saddened by the news of Sarah Harding’s untimely death from breast cancer. But I wasn’t shocked. I’ve been braced for this news since she went public with her diagnosis in August 2020, given that the disease had already metastasized. There seems to be a lack of understanding regarding the outlook for patients whose cancer has spread. Cases of metastases are almost always terminal. I’m not sure I knew this before having cancer myself, though.
When I say I’ve been braced for this news, I don’t mean it’s something that’s been on my mind on a daily or even weekly basis. I didn’t know Sarah Harding. I’m just another woman who had a breast cancer diagnosis in my thirties and, as a result, have a vested interest in public figures who go through the same thing. I knew that when Sarah Harding died, there would be a huge outpouring of public grief, because she was a sort of everywoman for women of my generation. She was certainly the most relatable member of Girls Aloud, drinking and partying her way through the noughties, as so many of us in our twenties were. It seems unbelievable that someone who always seemed so full of life can be gone before her 40th birthday, but that’s cancer for you. Indiscriminate and cruel.
In talking about her diagnosis, Harding revealed that she had put off going to see her GP about the pain she was experiencing because of the pandemic. It seems that one of the reasons she went public with her devastating diagnosis was that she wanted others in the same position to seek advice as early as possible. The full impact of the pandemic on patients with illnesses other than Covid is not yet known, and perhaps it will never be known.
Based on the typical rate of diagnosis, however, the charity Breast Cancer Now estimated in March 2021 that there are almost 11,000 people with undiagnosed breast cancer in the UK. This is partly a result of 1.2 million fewer women having breast screening between March and December 2020, because of Covid disruption. However, for younger women, who aren’t yet eligible for routine screening anyway, it’s likely to be down to a delay in reporting symptoms and having breast changes checked. Breast Cancer Now also reported a 90,000 drop in referrals to a specialist in the same 2020 period. Patients’ reasons for avoiding the GP were listed as not wanting to further burden the NHS and being afraid of contracting Covid.
I spoke to a woman in her forties who asked to be screened after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2020. While her sister was screened and put into the system early as a result, she is still waiting to be invited for screening and has, in the interim, been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Another woman in the same age bracket was diagnosed in August 2020, in a trust where treatment didn’t stop at any point, but was definitely impacted in various ways. While surgery to remove tumours continued, immediate reconstruction wasn’t offered. Patients weren’t allowed to take anyone to appointments with them and support services were limited, and she felt these measures made her experience a lonely one. It’s impossible to say how different these women’s experiences would have been in another time, but it seems certain that the pandemic has impacted them and thousands of other cancer patients negatively.
I hope Harding’s death results in more young women coming forward to have symptoms checked, and a subsequent rise in early diagnoses, in much the same way that Jade Goody’s death in 2009 raised awareness of cervical cancer. I hope it serves as a reminder to young women to check their breasts often and thoroughly, and to seek guidance on how to do so if they’re unsure, and also as a reminder that thirty-something isn’t too young for breast cancer. Not too young to be diagnosed, and not too young to die.
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