CRUCIAL breast cancer screenings were suspended after a 10-metre cable was stolen from a mobile unit at the Royal Blackburn Hospital.

All the appointments for the unit, which serves the whole of East Lancashire, were cancelled yesterday, causing serious distress for 120 already-anxious women, although some opted to travel to Burnley General Hospital instead.

Engineers rushed to replace the X-ray machine power cable and said it was back up and running by 5.30pm, so today’s (Tues) appointments should be unaffected.

The unit deals only with routine screenings for women between the ages of 47 and 70, so the hospital said anyone with suspected breast cancer or patients referred by their GP were not affected.

Russ McLean, chairman of the Pennine Lancashire Patient Voices Group, said: “The scumbags who perpetrated this heinous crime should be absolutely ashamed of themselves.

“A lot of these women will have been extremely nervous about these appointments, and having to re-arrange their plans will only add to their distress. It could also put women at risk if they do not re-arrange and attend their appointment.”

Hospital bosses said the unit, which is in Blackburn for two weeks, worked hard to let patients know about the theft, so only 38 out of 120 patients turned up.

Among those who still attended was Patricia Clarkson, from Rishton, who works at Derian House Children’s Hospice in Chorley.

She said: “I travelled over from Chorley and had to get someone to cover my work. There are time and cost implications to my missing this appointment and the people who stole the cable are a nuisance.”

A handful of patients took up an offer to travel to Burnley to be screened yesterday, while the rest of the appointments should be completed in Blackburn within the next two weeks. Bosses complained of the ‘unnecessary disruption’ and said staff may now have to organise extra weekend or evening appointments.

Although there are strict two-week targets for urgent breast referrals, including where a lump is found, the only target for routine screenings is to make sure women are seen once during a three-year period.

Sam West, a mammographer for the East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust, added: “It is not just the inconvenience to patients. A lot of those coming yesterday were first-timers and they are already in a highly emotional state.

“Somebody out there knows something about this crime and the people who committed it should remember that the women visiting here could be their mothers or their sisters.”

Carol Wood, breast imaging manager, said: “The theft has caused unnecessary disruption to the service and to our patients but we are determined to make sure every woman who had an appointment yesterday will be screened over the course of the next few days.”

Lancashire Police said the theft was reported at about 8.30am yesterday and appealed for witnesses. Anyone with any information should call police on 101 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

Around 55,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the UK and just under 12,000 die from the disease. Around 81 per cent of breast cancers occur in women over the age of 50.

The NHS first introduced routine screenings in 1988 and now offers tests to women between the ages of 47 and 70, every three years.

A total of 16,432 women aged 45 and over had cancers detected by the NHS screening programme in 2012/13, which equated to 8.3 cases per 1,000 women screened.