Breast cancer exam.

A study published today in the British Journal of General Practice found women with breast pain alone were no more likely to receive a diagnosis of breast cancer than women with no symptoms.

Each year more than 700,000 women are referred to NHS breast clinics in England, with almost a 100% increase in referrals over the past 10 years.

This study backs up other research suggesting that women with breast pain, but no other symptoms, aren’t more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than those having breast screening which is designed for people who don’t have any symptoms.

– Karis Betts, health information manager at Cancer Research UK

Results from the study

The latest study gathered data from 10,830 symptomatic women who were presenting to a large breast cancer diagnostic clinic between 1 April 2019 and 31 March 2020.

The team compared each case for referral reason to clinical outcome.

Although the study looked at a total 10,830 women, only 1,972 of these people were referred to the clinic with pain in the breast as the only symptom. This is still a relatively small group. Men, though it is very rare, can also get breast cancer but are not represented in this cohort study.

The results found that the incidence of breast cancer in the group of women referred with breast pain alone was no higher than women having breast screening, which is designed to detect cancer in people who don’t have symptoms.

However, these findings provide further evidence to substantiate current NICE guidelines that breast pain alone is not a reason for a suspected cancer referral.

What does this mean if you have breast pain?

Breast pain is very common, but it’s not normally due to cancer. You might get pain in one or both breasts for a while, which goes after a time. There might be no obvious reason for this pain, even if you have a lot of tests.

This paper advocates that people with breast pain require appropriate care to relieve breast pain symptoms, outside of the cancer pathway. Redirecting those with breast pain alone away from secondary care to more appropriate care pathways will create extra capacity within breast cancer diagnostic clinics for people with ‘red-flag’ symptoms that have a stronger link to breast cancer.

“These findings don’t mean that people should ignore breast pain. Though breast pain alone is unlikely to be a sign of cancer, breast pain with other symptoms can be sign of cancer still and whether it’s cancer or not, tests or treatment might be needed,” says Betts. “There are lots of signs and symptoms of breast cancer, but you don’t need to remember them all. Instead, it’s important to know what’s normal for you and tell your doctor if you notice any unusual changes.”