As Hunter residents focus on the fight to contain COVID-19, hundreds across the region are quietly battling breast cancer.

Battle scars: a survivor shows her mastectomy. Image sourced: Michelle Leman.

Not-for-profit Hunter Breast Cancer Foundation says it has experienced a tripling of demand for its client support services over the past 14 months.

The foundation helps women and men undergoing breast cancer treatment by assisting families with cleaning, lawn maintenance and transport to medical appointments, as well as the provision of children’s books to better explain Mum or Dad’s cancer journey.

The foundation, which has been operating for more than 20 years, aims to give women their confidence back, providing wigs, head wear and prosthetic breasts post-treatment.

“For the last financial year up to June 2021, we have supported over 265 families through breast cancer,” HBCF’s Abbey McDonell said.

“However, we know there is probably a lot of other families out there needing to access the services.”

HBCF worked hard during 2020 to transition its services to COVID-safe delivery methods, especially given the immunocompromised status of many clients.

The foundation was ready to pivot again in 2021 as COVID reached the Hunter, getting creative with its fundraising events.

Newcastle drag queen Timberlina will host a virtual Boobie Bingo charity night for HBCF on Sunday night, August 22

Bingo! Newcastle drag sensation Timberlina. Image source: TimberProductions.

Via Zoom, Timberlina will call three rounds of bingo, delivering drag performances in between.

Attendees are encouraged to settle in with their favourite beverage and wear something joyful.

“Timberlina has a very naughty wit, and it will make for an entertaining night,” McDonell said.

“The aim of the night is to keep our supporters entertained through lockdown while raising awareness of the importance of continuing to support the HBCF breast cancer family.

“We are obviously going through a difficult time, but unfortunately cancer doesn’t stop during lockdown, so it’s really important for the community to get on board and keep supporting us.”

According to Breast Cancer Network Australia, it is projected that 20,030 Australians will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021, or 55 people a day.  

On Thursday, government-led mammogram provider BreastScreen NSW suspended all routine breast screening statewide, citing increasing risk from the Delta outbreak.

The statement from BreastScreen said staff were being redeployed to assist in the management of COVID-19.

It is unclear when services will resume.

The USA’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention said America’s National Breast Cancer Early Detection Program experienced a decline of 87 per cent detection during April 2020 compared to the previous five-year averages for that month.

Two studies from researchers in Massachusetts also reveal a worrying trend: more than a quarter of surveyed breast cancer patients reported they had experienced a delay in screening or a delay in treatment due to the pandemic.

The CDC believes clinic closures, requirements to stay home and public fear of contracting COVID-19 in clinical settings is contributing to breast cancer diagnosis delays, leading to poorer patient outcomes.

Hunter Breast Cancer Foundation is urging Novocastrians to remain breast aware.

“We would encourage everyone to not let COVID delay routine medical appointments or especially not if they have any concerns,” McDonell said.

“There are telehealth appointments and access to in-person consultations available, so I wouldn’t be scared off. As we know, early detection is the best prevention.

“If the outcome is not what you are expecting, that is what HBCF is here for, and we will be here to support you.”

The foundation says it has a number of community-led fundraising ideas in the works and hopes Novocastrians will get involved.

Tickets to Timberlina’s Boobie Bingo night are $16.50 and can be purchased through the HBCF website.

Lauren Freemantle