Clinical update

Breast cancer

According to the Office for National Statistics, 53,339 women in the UK were newly diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 – equivalent to 1,026 a week.

Essential facts

According to the Office for National Statistics, 53,339 women in the UK were newly diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 – equivalent to 1,026 a week. Most breast cancers occur in women aged over 50 and one in three are aged 70 or over. Among European Union countries, the UK has the fifth highest incidence of breast cancer and the 11th highest mortality rate from the disease.

Picture credit: Getty

Public Health England (PHE) has launched a nationwide campaign to raise awareness in women aged 70 or over of all the symptoms of breast cancer, including lesser-known ones. The campaign, which will run until mid-September, follows a survey that revealed that less than half of women aged 70 or over could name any symptom of breast cancer aside from a lump. Women are being urged to visit their GP immediately if they notice any unusual or persistent changes to their breasts.

The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age. According to a study published in the British Journal of Cancer, women in their seventies and eighties are less likely to survive breast cancer than those in their fifties and sixties. Among the reasons for this was late diagnosis in older women. More than half of those aged 51-69 have their cancer diagnosed at the earliest possible stage, compared with only a quarter of breast cancers in those aged over 80. PHE says that older women are more likely to delay going to their GP about symptoms.

About 30% of women diagnosed with breast cancer report a symptom other than a lump. Other symptoms include changes to the skin of the breast, changes in shape or size, nipple discharge or change, and pain.

Patients should be encouraged to feel the whole of their breasts and armpits and also look at their breasts in the mirror to see if anything has changed. Remind patients that they are searching not just for lumps but for other possible symptoms, and that any changes should be reported promptly to their GP.

Expert comment

Victoria Harmer, clinical nurse specialist in breast care, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, London

‘A lot of women focus more on the idea of a lump, rather than looking for other symptoms – it is not just older women. There is some research to say that black and ethnic minority populations have less awareness, too.

‘Screening usually ends when women are 70, but the risks of developing breast cancer increase with age. It is important to remind women that the risks still exist and they need to continue with their own regular checking.

‘Our bodies change as we get older, so knowing what is normal for us is important. It is about women having power over themselves and feeling in charge of their bodies. They are the experts.’

Find out more

Public Health England breast cancer campaign (July 2015)

British Journal of Cancer article: Patient and tumour characteristics, management, and age-specific survival in women with breast cancer in the East of England (2011)

Against Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer Now

Breast Cancer Care

Why women ignore first signs of cancer (June 2015)

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