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Half of Older Women Unclear on Breast Cancer Symptoms

Haroon Siddique
scan of a breast

Half of women aged 70 and over cannot name a breast cancer symptom other than a lump, despite one in three who are diagnosed with the disease being from that age group, a Public Health England survey has found.

Around three in 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer report a symptom other than a lump, illustrating the importance of women being aware of alternative manifestations of the potentially fatal disease. PHE has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the risks and increase knowledge of symptoms among women aged 70 and over.

The chief medical officer, Prof Dame Sally Davies, said: “You are never too old to get breast cancer. It is not always a lump and women should look out for any changes in the shape of the breast, a change to a nipple or to the skin. “Spotting the signs of cancer early is very important so if women are concerned about any breast cancer symptoms they should contact their GP straight away.”

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women in England, with around 41,200 women diagnosed each year. National figures show that around 9,500 women a year die from breast cancer, of whom 5,400 are aged 70 or over.

The survey findings, based on face-to-face interviews with 420 people aged 70 and over, were released to coincide with the second year of PHE’s national Be Clear on Cancer campaign, intended to improve England’s cancer survival rates, which lag behind those of many other European countries.

Research published in March showed that the UK’s five-year survival rate for breast cancer of 81% in 2009 was below those of Sweden, France and Italy 10 years previously. This year’s campaign will focus on those aged 70 and over. Despite older women being at increased risk – around 13,400 are diagnosed with breast cancer each year – they are more likely to delay going to their GP with symptoms.

NHS England data shows that there has already been a 25% increase in the number of breast cancer diagnoses in women aged 70 and over following an urgent GP referral during the campaign period, compared with two years earlier.

The PHE deputy director of health and wellbeing, Dr Ann Hoskins, said: “This campaign aims to target women aged 70 and over, as we know that many women of this age group are unaware of the risk breast cancer poses to them. They also tend to have lower knowledge of the symptoms of breast cancer, and are not necessarily looking at or feeling their breasts so are less likely to detect change.

“This campaign emphasises that a lump is not the only sign of breast cancer and women should tell their GP if they notice any changes to their breasts. Other possible signs of breast cancer include nipple changes and changes to the skin of the breast.”

Published: Monday 13 July 2015. By Haroon Siddique
Copyright © 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies

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