Late breast cancer diagnosis among pensioners blamed on a lack of awareness of symptoms

Elderly women are dying needlessly from breast cancer because it is diagnosed too late, researchers warn.

The over-seventies are at a much higher risk of having the illness picked up only when it has spread elsewhere.

Cambridge University researchers found that women with breast cancer aged 70 to 74 were a fifth more likely to have been diagnosed with cancer that had reached the late stages compared with those aged 65 to 69.

Worry: A lack of awareness in the elderly has been blamed for late diagnosis of cancers (Posed by model)

Worry: A lack of awareness in the elderly has been blamed for late diagnosis of cancers (Posed by model)

And for women over 75, the risk of being diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer was almost 50 per cent higher.

Experts warn there is a lack of
awareness of breast cancer among older generations and many women
wrongly assume they are out of danger once they turn 70.

There is also concern that many are
reluctant to seek help from their GP even when they suspect they may be
seriously ill as they do not want to be a burden. The findings cannot be
fully explained by the fact that women over 70 are not invited for
regular breast screening, the researchers said.

Sara Hiom, of Cancer Research UK, said: ‘Older women are less aware of the signs and symptoms.

‘Women think the risk of breast cancer drops off when they reach the magic 70.

‘There is a general reluctance to see the doctor ingrained in the older generations.

‘Younger women are presenting and they are not prepared to be fobbed off by their GP.

‘Obviously the longer you leave the
cancer the more likely it is to metastasise, to spread, and consequently
it is far more difficult to treat.’

Discovery: Researchers at Cambridge University (Trinity College pictured) have found a link between cancer diagnosis and age

Discovery: Researchers at Cambridge University (Trinity College pictured) have found a link between cancer diagnosis and age

The study, published today in the
British Journal of Cancer, looked at 17,800 women diagnosed with breast
cancer between 2006 and 2009.

Researchers compared women’s ages and the stage at which the cancer had been diagnosed.

They grouped them into patients with
stage 1 or 2 cancer, which is confined to the breast or armpits, or
stage 3 or 4, where it has spread to the chest, shoulder or organs such
as lungs or liver.

Once the illness has reached stage 4,
it may be terminal and patients will often require a combination of
chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery. Around 48,000 women are
diagnosed with breast cancer every year, and it claims 11,700 lives.

But figures show the survival chances of women in their seventies or eighties are lower compared with those in their sixties.

Some 87 per cent of those diagnosed in
their sixties will beat the illness, falling to 78 per cent of
sufferers in their seventies and 64 per cent of those in their eighties.
There is growing evidence that the survival chances of older patients
with any form of cancer are lower as they tend to be diagnosed later and
are not always offered the best treatment.

Cervical screening's 92 per cent cure rate

Last year research from the National
Cancer Intelligence Network found that only 70 per cent of breast cancer
patients in their seventies were offered surgery compared with 90 per
cent of those aged 30 to 50.

Cancer specialists warned of a culture
of ageism in the health service and said some doctors were just writing
patients off based on their dates of birth.

The author of the latest study, Dr
Georgios Lyratzopoulos, who is based at the University of Cambridge,
said: ‘Patient awareness of the signs of breast cancer is known to be
lower among older women and this may explain why breast cancer is
diagnosed later among this age group.

‘There is substantial potential for improvements in early diagnosis in older patients with breast cancer.’