Province taking cautious approach to lowering breast cancer screening age

Manitoba’s Health Minister is urging caution as the province mulls lowering the breast cancer screening age to 40.

Uzoma Asagwara said Wednesday the province is looking into potentially making the change, but before anything is set in stone, it has to address capacity issues. 

“We need to make sure that we have the right number of technologists and people in our province who can provide this care,” Asagwara said Wednesday following question period at the Manitoba Legislature. 

“What we don’t want to happen, which we’ve seen in other places, is to expand access to this care and then have the people who are most impacted with not being able to access this care, like low-income women, marginalized women, not being able to get the timely care that they need.” 

Asagwara also cautioned that lowering the screening age could result in new problems. The health minister said that when access to screening opportunities is opened up, it can create situations where older people who need that service can’t get the care in the time they need. 

The current age for routine screening is only for those 50 and older in Manitoba right now, but it’s a different story elsewhere in Canada. 

Women aged 40-49 can self-refer to a breast screening program in Yukon, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. The society also said both Ontario and New Brunswick announced that they will support self-referral for the age group starting in 2024. 

Both the Northwest Territories and Alberta have recently lowered program start age from 50 to 45 and Saskatchewan recently announced that it will lower its program start age to 40, using a phased-in approach beginning in 2025, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. 

The cancer society has urged all provinces to lower the screening age and on Wednesday the Opposition Progressive Conservatives joined that call to action during question period. 

Tory health critic Kathleen Cook brought up the cancer society’s plea during Wednesday’s session and also asked if the Health Minister would make a plan to lower the screening age for breast cancer immediately. 

“Every other province in Canada has either already lowered the screening age or announced a plan to do so,” said Cook. “Early screening means more cases get caught sooner and more lives can be saved.”

“This is not political, this is the right thing to do.”

Following question period, Cook said the PCs are simply asking how the NDP government will get the province to the age the Canadian Cancer Society said is adequate for screening. 

“Nobody’s asking the health minister to announce starting tomorrow, every woman between the ages of 40 and 49 can get a screening mammogram,” Tory health critic Kathleen Cook said during the session. “What we are asking for is a plan to get us there. And that’s the approach we’ve seen some other provinces take.”

The PCs also sent out a news release Thursday and included documents that said the NDP are waiting on recommendations from the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care. 

Meanwhile, Asagwara said guidelines are going to inform the approach in Manitoba and the province continues to consult with local and national organizations on the matter. 

“We intend to make sure that we have the most up-to-date current information, I do believe it’s important to get those guidelines to help inform our approach in Manitoba.”

“We have met with partners across the province, across the country,” said Asagwara. “We’ve met with CancerCare on multiple occasions on this particular issue, and we’re going to continue to listen to the experts and create a plan and an approach in Manitoba that benefits all Manitoba women and those who need this care.”