Around one in six women (17 per cent) diagnosed with breast cancer go to their doctor with a symptom other than a lump – the most commonly reported breast cancer symptom – according to new research* presented at the 2016 National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Cancer conference in Liverpool.
Researchers from UCL examined the data of more than 2,300 women diagnosed with breast cancer in England in 2009/10. They found that, although most women with breast cancer sought help quickly, those with ‘non-lump’ symptoms were more likely to delay going to their doctor compared with women with a breast lump alone. Breast symptoms, other than a breast lump, that may be a sign of cancer (termed ‘non-lump’ in the study) include nipple abnormalities, breast pain, skin abnormalities, ulceration, shape abnormalities and an infected or inflamed breast.
Women with both a breast lump and ‘non-lump’ symptoms were also more likely to delay seeking help.
Women presenting with breast ulceration, nipple abnormalities, breast infection or inflammation, swollen arm or armpit, and pain in the armpit were more likely to wait longer than three months to seek help.
The research used data from 2009/10 National Audit of Cancer Diagnosis in Primary Care.
There are more than 53,600 breast cancers diagnosed in the UK every year and 11,400 deaths from the disease annually.
Monica Koo, presenting author based at UCL, said: “Our research shows around one in six women diagnosed with breast cancer have symptoms other than a breast lump. These women are more likely to delay going to the doctor compared to women with breast lump alone.”
“It’s crucial that women are aware that a lump is not the only symptom of breast cancer. If they are worried about any breast symptoms, the best thing to do is to get it checked by a doctor as soon as possible. Diagnosing cancer earlier really is key in order to increase the chances of survival. Symptom awareness campaigns such as the Be Clear on Cancer campaign should continue to emphasise breast symptoms other than breast lump.”
Dr Karen Kennedy, Director of the NCRI, said: “This research shows that, all too often, women are delaying going to their doctor with symptoms of breast cancer. This could be because people are simply unaware that breast cancer can present in many different ways, not just through the presence of a lump. With a disease like breast cancer, it’s essential to be diagnosed as early as possible so that a treatment plan can be developed and started. Awareness campaigns need to raise awareness of all of the potential symptoms of breast cancer so that people know how to spot the signs and when to go to a doctor.”
Dr Jem Rashbass, PHE Cancer Lead, said: “It is hugely important to catch breast cancer early. Lumps are not the only sign and our Be Clear on Cancer campaign emphasises that women should tell their GP if they notice any changes to their breasts, such as nipple discharge or changes to the skin of the breast. As well as the campaign, breast screening is offered to women aged 50-70 and can help detect cancer earlier and improve survival.”
* Typical and atypical symptoms in women with breast cancer: Evidence of variation in diagnostic intervals from a national audit of cancer diagnosis
This work was supported by the Policy Research Unit in Cancer Awareness, Screening and Early Diagnosis. The Policy Research Unit in Cancer Awareness, Screening, and Early Diagnosis receives funding from the Department of Health Policy Research Programme. It is a collaboration between researchers from seven institutions (Queen Mary University of London, UCL, King’s College London, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Hull York Medical School, Durham University and Peninsula Medical School); and a Cancer Research UK Clinician Advanced Scientist Fellowship A18180.