When asked to describe the symptoms of breast cancer, most people would rightly say "a lump", but there are other signs you need to watch for too. Some 30% of all women diagnosed with breast cancer are diagnosed after reporting a symptom other than a lump.
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Older women at more risk
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in England, with around 41,200 women diagnosed every year. Around 9,500 women die from breast cancer each year and over half of these are women aged 70 and over. This equates to around 15 women aged 70 and over dying from breast cancer in England every day.
Despite older women being at an increased risk of breast cancer, some 48% of women aged over 70 could name only one symptom of breast cancer – a lump - when surveyed. Not only are older women unaware of what to check for, they're also more likely to delay going to their GP with breast cancer symptoms.
Seven lesser signs of breast cancer
Aside from a lump or thickening of the breast tissue, you should look for any other unusual or persistent changes to your breasts. Here are seven important signs to watch for:
1. A change in size and shape of your breast.
2. A rash or redness on either breast and around your nipple.
3. Fluid discharge – which may be blood stained – from either nipple (without squeezing).
4. Any swelling near your collarbone, or in your armpit.
5. Changes to your skin texture, for instance, any puckers or dimpling.
6. Either nipple changing shape or position, or sinking into your breast.
7. Feeling constant pain in either breast or armpit.
Detection saves lives
Spotting the signs of cancer early is important as the earlier you're diagnosed and treated, the more likely you are to survive. If breast cancer is diagnosed at the earliest stage in women aged 70 and over, 93% will live for at least another five years. This figure drops to just 13% for those diagnosed at the most advanced stage.
Studies show that women who find a lump tend to go to their GP more quickly than those with non-lump symptoms – but you shouldn't wait to find a lump before you see your GP. If you're concerned about any kind of change to your breasts, see your doctor straight away.
Media Medic, Dr Dawn Harper says: "It is extremely important to seek medical advice if you have any concerns about unusual changes to your breasts and encourage others to do so too. Anyone that visits us will not be wasting our time, as GPs it's what we're there for. If you do have breast cancer, the earlier it is found treatment is more likely to be successful and can lead to a better outcome."
Worryingly, 17% (an estimated 6,000 every year) of women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer waited for more than a month before making an appointment to see their GP, according to research by Breast Cancer Care.
Check yourself regularly
It's important to check your breasts regularly as then you'll know what looks and feels normal, and what doesn't. A good time is when you're in the bath or the shower or getting dressed. As well as your breasts, feel your armpits and the area around them, right up to your collarbone. If you notice something unusual, see your GP straight away.