Greater breast awareness can lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment, with the potential to save lives.

Every year, 55,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer, which is the equivalent of one person every ten minutes.  One in eight women in the UK will develop breast cancer in their lifetimes.

Breast Cancer Awareness

October 2015 is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a worldwide annual campaign in which organisations come together to highlight the importance of breast awareness, education and research.  

Thankfully, the survival rate for breast cancer continues to increase, and more than eight out of ten people are now surviving the disease beyond five years.  

Get to know your breasts

Awareness of breast cancer is critical, and it is important for women to be familiar with their breasts. You should know what they normally look and feel like, which makes it easier to detect any changes.  Every woman's breasts are different, and changes in the way they look and feel may vary throughout a woman's monthly cycle and lifetime.  Women should be alive to any changes in their breasts, including:

  • Changes in the shape of the breast 
  • Lumps
  • Discomfort and pain
  • Changes to the appearance of the nipple

Always report changes in your breasts to your GP

There are a number of reasons why breasts may change, and most are not a cause for concern. However, if any changes are noticed, they must be checked by a doctor, as there is a small chance that they could signify cancer.

What should your GP do?

The National Institute for Health Care and Excellence (NICE) Referral Guidelines, which are the recommended clinical guidelines in the UK, state that:

  • A patient who presents with symptoms suggestive of breast cancer should be referred to a team specialising in the management of breast cancer.
  • In most cases, the definitive diagnosis will not be known at the time of referral, and many patients who are referred will be found not to have cancer. However, primary healthcare professionals should convey optimism about the effectiveness of treatment and survival because a patient being referred with a breast lump will be naturally concerned.

When breast cancer is suspected and a referral is made to a team specialising in the management of breast cancer (usually a breast cancer clinic) you should be seen at the clinic within two weeks, accordingly to the NICE Guidelines.  In Wales, you should be seen within 10 working days after being referred to a breast cancer specialist.  

Be aware and stay safe

Delays in diagnosing breast cancer, and misdiagnosis of the disease, can have very serious consequences.   Mistakes do occur in the diagnosis of breast cancer and, on occasion, someone may be told they have breast cancer when they do not.  This can lead to unnecessary treatment, such as breast tissue being removed wrongly, cosmetic deformity of the breast and lymph nodes being removed unnecessarily.

Delays in diagnosis of breast cancer can also occur for a number of reasons – GPs failing to refer patients for further tests when they present with symptoms; insufficient tests being undertaken when a lump is present; and the result of tests being incorrectly interpreted.

The key message is to keep an eye out for any of the symptoms outlined above. If you notice anything unusual, you should report any changes to your GP promptly.   The chances are that the symptoms will be harmless, but it always worth checking.