An announcement by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt that the NHS failed to invite 450,000 women in England to screenings has caused anger as many face an anxious wait to find out if they should have had a check-up.
The families of people who recently died of breast cancer could learn that there was a missed opportunity for diagnosis caused by a computer glitch dating back to 2009.
Up to 270 women could have had their lives cut short by the error, which meant women aged 68 to 71 were not called to their final routine screening.
Mr Hunt apologised and announced an independent review into the failure.
Breast Cancer Care said it had seen a huge surge in calls to its helpline following the “appalling blunder”.
Dr Emma Pennery, the charity’s Clinical Director, said: “This surge highlights the gravity of the situation and the sheer number of people it has impacted. The women contacting us are feeling angry, confused and want answers.
“Many are anxiously playing a waiting game until the letters arrive, not knowing if they’ve been affected.
“Others are extremely worried about when their letters will arrive and how long it will take to get screened.”
Yorkshire Cancer Research said three in 10 breast cancers were found through screening and 85 per cent found by screening were diagnosed at an early stage.
Dr Stuart Griffiths, the charity’s Director of Research and Services, said: “It’s really quite frustrating that it took so long to figure out that this was going wrong apart from anything else.”
Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at Breast Cancer Now, said it was a “colossal systemic failure”.
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, said he wanted to know if the blunder led to an overall fall in the update of breast cancer screening.
The proportion of women aged 50-70 taking up routine breast screening fell to 71.1 per cent in 2016-17, down from 73.6 per cent in 2006-07 and the lowest rate in 10 years, according to figures from NHS Digital.
Widower Brian Gough said his wife Trixie did not receive a letter inviting her to go for a screening in 2009. A scan in October 2010 revealed she had stage-three breast cancer.
The 77-year-old from Norfolk said: “Somebody somewhere along the line has made a massive error.” He said his wife of 56 years died three days after Christmas in 2015.
Despite his shock, Mr Gough said he admired the Health Secretary for “getting up and not trying to hide the truth”.
Dr Jenny Harries, Deputy Medical Director of Public Health England, told the BBC: “There are a number of organisations involved in this and I think we are all - Public Health England, the NHS, NHS Digital, the Department of Health - devastated by this.
“We wouldn’t want any lives to be shortened. We have gone back and fixed all these glitches and audited that, so women can be assured going forward that that is sorted.”
Women in England between the ages of 50 and 70 are currently automatically invited for breast cancer screening every three years. Of the women who missed screening invitations, 309,000 are estimated to still be alive and all those living in the UK who are registered with a GP will be contacted before the end of May.
The helpline number for those who think they may be affected is 0800 1692692.