Disabled women are less likely to attend potentially life-saving breast and bowel cancer screenings, a report partly funded by Cancer Research UK has revealed.
The Million Women study, published in the British Journal of Cancer, found women are a third less likely less likely to participate in breast cancer screening compared to women with no disabilities. Meanwhile disabled women are a quarter less likely to take part in bowel cancer screening.
The study’s lead researcher said disabled women “may not have equal access to screening programmes” which, in turn, prevents them from attending.
Disability activist Samantha Renke told HuffPost UK she’s “not surprised” by the findings. “I don’t even know what provisions they have in place for women like myself who cannot stand and wouldn’t be able to reach a mammogram,” she said.
“Even going for a smear test has its issues, as I need assistance onto a bed in a small clinic. If my personal assistant isn’t with me at appointments, things can be very difficult.”
The Million Women Study is a national study of women’s health, involving more than one million UK women aged 50 and over.
Of the 500,000 women who were offered breast or bowel cancer screening and took part in the survey, more than a fifth reported living with a disability.
Women with disabilities affecting eyesight, mobility and the ability to take care of themselves were the least likely to take part in cancer screening.
Disabled women who did not have access to cars were more likely to miss breast screenings.
Dr Sarah Floud, lead researcher based at the University of Oxford, said: “While taking part in screening is a personal choice, our research suggests that women with disabilities may not have equal access to screening programmes.
“This is despite the fact that all people of the relevant age groups are routinely invited for free cancer screening, and that the screening programmes offer special arrangements for people with disabilities.”
Dr Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK’s head of health and patient information, said: “This research highlights the various practical barriers that can prevent women with disabilities from taking part in screening.
“Having a better understanding of their specific needs means that the design of screening programmes can be improved to ensure people with disabilities can take up invitations to screening if they choose.”
Women were considered to have a disability if they reported difficulty walking up a flight of stairs, said their walking pace was slow or if they reported their hearing, eyesight or memory to be poor. Disabilities also included difficulty bathing or dressing.
For those who struggle to access, or are worried about accessing, cancer screening services due to mobility issues, Katie Edmunds, Cancer Research UK’s health information officer, told HuffPost UK: “Special arrangements can be made for women who have limited mobility – for example those who use a wheelchair – ahead of their screening appointment.
“If you think you may need assistance, you can call your doctor, or breast screening unit, who will be able to talk through what can be done to accommodate your individual needs and help you attend your appointment.”
It’s worth noting that women in wheelchairs can have a mammogram if they are able to remove their foot and arm rest, enabling them to get closer to the machine. There aren’t specially-adapted machines for disabled women, however existing mammography machines can be adjusted in height.
It’s crucial for these women to have a strong upper body so they can remain still while having the mammogram. In cases where they can’t support the upper body unaided, they “may be assisted by a second radiographer, or a carer, if available”, according to Public Health England (PHE).
A spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “The breast screening programme will do all it can to assist a woman in being screened. This will include arranging a special appointment, where she will be given more time, if she requires additional support.
“We will also encourage a woman to carry out a self-examination and for her to see a GP without delay if there are any concerns about her breast health.”
In some cases, mammography may not be possible at all. If this is the case, the woman should remain in the call and recall breast screening programme, as any increased mobility at a future date may make screening easier, the NHS Choices website advises. It adds: “If a woman cannot be screened, she should be advised on breast awareness.”
Dr Anne Mackie, PHE’s director of screening, told HuffPost UK that improving access to screening is a priority for the health body.
“Ensuring that women with disabilities are able to easily access screening is a PHE priority and the programmes should offer to arrange ‘special appointments’ when they are aware that women have additional needs,” she told HuffPost UK.
“We are currently reviewing and updating our ‘breast screening easy read’ leaflet and are holding a focus group with women with disabilities, carers and health professionals to ensure their voices are heard and that the leaflet is fit for purpose.
“A new easy read leaflet for bowel scope screening is due to be published soon. These leaflets provide all the appropriate information in clear and simple language so women can decide whether screening is right for them.”