Breast cancer is one of the most well-known types of cancer, and receives a lot of media attention and campaigning energy. So it’s shocking to discover that many people are still in the dark about some basic aspects of the disease.

That was the conclusion of a new survey of over 700 British women aged 67-73, carried out by Cancer Research UK scientists, led by Amanda Ramirez. The aim of the survey was to measure how much older women (who are most at risk of breast cancer) know about the disease, and its results paint a surprising picture. Let’s take a look at them.

Ignorance about age

For a start, 75 per cent of the women surveyed did not know that age can affect the risk of breast cancer. In fact, when it comes to working out someone’s risk of the disease, age is probably the most important thing to consider. While young women can certainly develop breast cancer (Kylie being the most famous recent example), it’s much more common in older women and it’s this age group that need to be most vigilant about spotting potential symptoms early.

The worry is that if women think that breast cancer is a disease of youth or middle-age, they might be less likely to spot important symptoms at the age when they’re most likely to show up.

Speaking of symptoms, the survey revealed that 85 per cent of women knew that a lump could be a symptom of breast cancer, but had little idea about other potential signs. These would include:

  • changes in the size, shape or feel of your breasts
  • any puckering, dimpling or redness of the skin
  • changes in the position of the nipple, a rash or nipple discharge
  • pain or discomfort that is new to you and felt only on one side

It’s important to be aware of these symptoms. In most cases, they won’t be caused by breast cancer but it’s important to report them quickly to a doctor nonetheless. More often than not, women with breast cancer are the first to spot their own symptoms. And detecting breast cancer at an early stage can greatly improve a person’s chances of being successfully treated.

Getting to know you

Unfortunately, the new survey also found that many women are not confident about checking their own breasts. Many of them do it, but about a third don’t believe that they would spot the relevant changes and about one in seven know very little about what their breasts normally feel like.

That’s obviously bad news. As we’ve blogged about before, regular, methodical “breast self-examination” is out, but being generally “breast-aware” is very much in. This means that knowing what is normal and what changes to look out for are still very important for detecting breast cancer at an early stage.

Fortunately, our researchers are also working to help women who lack the confidence to spot their own symptoms. Professor Ramirez’s group has also developed a programme, consisting of a booklet and face-to-face time with a radiographer, to teach older women how to check their own breasts and what to look for, and to encourage them to go to their doctor about anything unusual. The programme will soon be tested in a clinical trial.

And finally, for women over the age of 50, it is vital to attend the national breast screening programme. Among the stories promising future blood and saliva tests, it’s sometimes easy to forget about screening, but doing so would be a mistake. It’s a proven life-saver and by far the best tool we have at our disposal for detecting breast cancer at an early stage. The thousands of women whose lives it has saved can attest to that.