CANCER sufferers and survivors marched en masse to hammer home the message that women need a breast cancer unit in Dorchester.

Protesters from Dorset-wide breast cancer support groups gathered outside Dorset County Hospital to urge hospital chiefs to retain the under-threat unit in the county town.

Their protest comes amid fears that the unit could close and breast cancer patients would be forced to travel to Poole for treatment.

Hospital interim chief executive Derek Smith is attempting to balance the books of the cash-strapped hospital, which has a £7.5million deficit. A decision on the unit’s future is expected to be made by December 15.

A police escort led more than 50 protesters – including past and present breast cancer sufferers – from the hospital into Dorchester town centre, where leaflets were handed out.

Women wore pink wigs and carried pink balloons in a unified show of support for the unit, which has been rated one of the best in the country.

Liz Fearon, of West Stafford, said: “Mr Smith may only be here for the short term but we’re here for the long term. This is about the women coming behind us who will get breast cancer and who will have to slog to Poole and back from places like Lyme Regis, full of chemotherapy.”

Local breast cancer patients currently travel to Poole Hospital for radiotherapy but mastectomy and lumpectomy surgery takes place at DCH. These procedures, including chemotherapy and pill administration, face the axe from the hospital.

Bridport breast cancer support group leader Norma Dilbey, of Marshwood, said patients from the west of DCH’s service area would face a 100-mile round trip to Poole for life-saving treatment.

Dorchester resident Manuela Smith said: “I had breast cancer and a double mastectomy. I don’t think I’d have survived if I had to travel to Poole.”

Wendy Nightingale has collected thousands of signatures on petitions left at GP surgeries in and around Weymouth, Portland, Dorchester and Bridport.

She said: “Most of the women here are breast cancer survivors and they are all here today because they want to show the hospital how important it is to have the service here.

Bridport resident Nicky Imber runs a support group for younger breast cancer sufferers and said women of all ages wanted to raise awareness that the unit was under threat.