A charity for breast cancer, Breast Cancer Now, has highlighted in a recent report by BBC News the need for greater awareness about the fact that the disease can spread to other parts of the body. The charity noted that it is ‘unacceptable’ that people do not have early access to treatments which could alleviate symptoms and improve their quality of life if their cancer has spread.
A survey suggested that one in four patients with secondary breast cancer (when the disease has spread) do not get diagnosed until after three or more visits to their GP and 35,000 people are living with the incurable form of the disease in the UK.
Breast Cancer Now stated that, “for too long now, the worrying perception that everyone survives breast cancer has masked the heart-breaking reality for 11,500 families in the UK that lose someone they love each year.” These 11,500 deaths are mostly from secondary breast cancer.
Breast Cancer Now’s survey of 2,100 people in the UK with secondary breast cancer found that just 13% were told of the symptoms to look out for if their cancer spread. Four in ten said they felt that their symptoms had not been taken seriously before they were diagnosed.
Secondary breast cancer occurs when cancer spreads through the blood and creates secondary tumours in the bones, liver, lung or brain. It cannot be cured and patients stay in treatment for the rest of their lives.
Although symptoms can vary depending on where the cancer has spread to, the most common symptoms include:
- unexpected weight loss or loss of appetite
- discomfort or swelling under the ribs or across the upper abdomen
- severe or continuing headaches
- altered vision or speech
- feeling sick most of the time
- breathlessness or a dry cough
- loss of balance or weakness or numbness of the limbs
- any lumps or swellings under the arm, breastbone or collarbone
- pain in the bones (e.g. back, hips or ribs) that doesn’t get better with pain relief and may be worse at night
A woman in her early 40s reported that she visited her GP five times over a number of years before discovering that breast cancer had spread to her liver and bones. Her symptoms included missed periods and nausea. The symptoms then became more serious and persistent, leaving her unable to move her neck.
She has urged women to speak up if they are concerned about their symptoms and to make doctors aware of their history.
Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, from the Royal College of GPs, said: “GPs and our teams are working flat out to do the very best we can for all our patients. We understand the importance of timely cancer diagnosis and are highly trained to identify possible symptoms of cancer and its recurrence.”
But she said that some symptoms are “very difficult to interpret because they are vague in the initial stages” or similar to other, more common conditions. She called for GPs to have better access to the right diagnostic tools and training so that they can ensure timely diagnosis.
Moosa-Duke Solicitors are specialists in clinical negligence law and regularly advise on cases involving a delay in diagnosing cancer. If you believe that you or a family member have received inadequate care from a GP or hospital Trust, please do not hesitate to contact us on 0116 254 7456 to discuss your concerns.