A BIG increase in women being sent for breast cancer testing following a hard-hitting campaign is putting NHS services under strain.

The health drive featuring actress Elaine C Smith has led to hundreds more women being referred by their GPs in just one month in the country's biggest health board area.

Taken across the country, the number of women coming forward potentially rises into the thousands.

Last night the leap in numbers brought calls for increased capacity in treatment to keep pace with the Government's early detection drive.

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHSGGC) saw a 50% increase in referrals in both September and October. NHS Lothian has had a similar rise.

In October alone – the month after the campaign was launched – 1700 women in the Glasgow area were sent for further testing – up 600 on the same month last year.

The bold initiative received widespread publicity and featured Smith, seemingly topless, holding a number of pictures that displayed breasts showing early signs of the disease.

Last night Robert Calderwood, chief executive of NHSGGC, claimed greater capacity in treatment was essential to improve survival rates and back up the aims of the early detection drive.

He said: "There has been a marked take-up of women coming in and it starts to put a strain on current resources.

"October was the first month after the national ad campaign with Elaine C Smith and it is also breast cancer month, so that could have seen a bounce [in the figures].

"If it were to maintain at that level, it is in the slightly higher range of what we would expect. It is a challenge.

"You have 580 more women in one month to be screened timeously and that is an increased demand on capacity.

"Radiotherapy capacity in the west of Scotland needs expanding before going forward.

"We have 11 radiotherapy accelerators that are almost at full capacity and if we are to have this year-on-year increase for demand we have to get additional capacity in the next two to three years."

The early detection campaign is due to cover the three most common cancer killers in Scotland; the focus first on breast cancer and then on bowel and lung cancer.

Health boards across Scotland will be expected to achieve a 25% increase in those diagnosed and treated in the first stages of the three types of cancer combined by 2015.

The programme is costing the Scottish Government £30 million with extra money to be paid to health boards to increase early detection rates. It is understood that between £12m and £14m will be shared out on an annual basis from next year.

Mr Calderwood added: "I don't know if it is enough to deal with the extra demand but at the end of the day it is significant new money."

A capital bid worth between £25m and £30m has been lodged to improve radiotherapy services in the west of Scotland. It is estimated that NHSGGC will need an additional £5m a year to run them.

The demand on services comes after an earlier report found that 4000 women a year in the UK are given unnecessary treatment for cancer through the breast screening programme, which checks women between the ages of 50 and 70.

However, the study found the benefits outweighed the harms, with the relative risk of dying from breast cancer 20% less than those who did not go through the clinical investigation.

Audrey Birt, Scotland Director at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: "We are pleased Detect Cancer Early is having a positive effect with more women getting any concerns about signs and symptoms of breast cancer checked out by their GP.

"However, it is also important that local health services are adequately resourced and have the appropriate processes in place to manage this increase in workload."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "As part of the programme, £30m is being invested across all NHS boards to support the programme, and this includes increasing diagnostic capacity."