Women unaware of when breast cancer risk is greatest

Cancer Research UK

Only one per cent of women know that older women - those 80 or older - have the greatest risk of developing breast cancer according to new research* published today.

Worryingly, the research also found that 56 per cent of women wrongly believed that age does not affect breast cancer risk.

The strongest risk factor for breast cancer - after gender - is age. The older the woman, the higher her risk. About one in 70 women will develop breast cancer between 40 and 50 years old but for women from 80 to 90 the figure is one in 25.

The study, funded by Cancer Research UK and the NHS Breast Screening Programme, surveyed 1,496 women who were asked "When is a woman most likely to get breast cancer?". Respondents were given a series of ten year age bands and 'age doesn’t matter' from which to select their answer. Of those surveyed, 99 per cent answered incorrectly.

An increased media focus on younger women who have been diagnosed with the disease - such as Kylie Minogue - and the fact that women are not routinely invited for breast screening after the age of 70 are two factors researchers think are contributing to the confusion over breast cancer risk.

Researchers fear the misunderstanding about breast cancer risk could be putting women’s health in jeopardy. If women think they are at low risk they may delay going to their doctor with symptoms or even ignore an invitation to attend breast cancer screening.

Early detection through screening saves around 1,400 lives every year in England . Cancers detected in screened women are smaller and are less likely to be treated with mastectomy. Attending screening and reporting any changes as soon as possible offers the best chance of finding breast cancer early.

Kath Moser, consultant researcher at Cancer Research UK’s Cancer Epidemiology Unit in Oxford and lead author of the research, said: "These results offer an insight into what women believe about their breast cancer risk. Unfortunately the reality is very different from what most women believe. Breast cancer risk increases with age and is highest in women over 80."

Julietta Patnick, director of the NHS Cancer Screening Programmes and co-author of the study, said: "Confusion over who is most at risk of breast cancer is a real concern. Less than one per cent of those surveyed were aware that women over 80 are most at risk of developing breast cancer. Women need to understand that their risk increases with age. If older women wrongly think they are at a lower risk, they may be less likely to attend screening appointments or even report breast cancer symptoms.

"The breast screening programme offers regular screening to all women over 50 and I would encourage all those eligible to make an informed choice about attending."

Professor John Toy, Cancer Research UK’s medical director, said: "As the age of a woman increases so, too, her risk of breast cancer increases. These results show a potentially harmful lack of knowledge. This confusion needs to be cleared up so that the older woman doesn’t wrongly assume she is 'growing out' of potential trouble."

"Through our Reduce the Risk campaign, Cancer Research UK is working hard to raise the awareness of breast cancer risk and to encourage, in particular, older women to attend screening."

Ends

For media enquiries contact Paul Thorne in the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7061 8300, or the out of hours duty press officer on 07050 264059.

Notes to Editor

* Moser K, Patnick J, Beral V. Do women know that the risk of breast cancer increases with age? Br J General Practice 2007; 57: 404-406

Responses to the question: When is a woman most likely to get breast cancer?

Women in sample: 1496

  • In her 40s: 9.3%
  • In her 50s: 21.3%
  • In her 60s: 6.9%
  • In her 70s: 1.3%
  • In her 80s+: 0.7%
  • Age doesn’t matter: 56.2%
  • Don’t know: 4.3%

Risk of developing breast cancer while

  • Women are in their 30s: 1 in 200
  • Women are in their 40s: 1 in 70
  • Women are in their 50s: 1 in 35
  • Women are in their 60s: 1 in 30
  • Women are in their 70s: 1 in 30
  • Women are in their 80s: 1 in 25
  • Lifetime risk (all ages): 1 in 9

Be breast aware and follow the five point code¦

  • Know what is normal for you
  • Look at and feel your breasts
  • Know what changes to look for
  • Report any changes without delay
  • Go for breast screening if you are 50 or over

Your breasts may feel different depending on the time of the month and your stage of life. When you know how they normally look and feel, you will be able to spot any unusual changes. Check yourself in a way that’s comfortable for you, perhaps in the bath or shower.

Reduce the Risk

Half of all cancers could be prevented by changes to lifestyle. Cancer Research UK’s Reduce the Risk campaign has five simple messages to help people reduce their risk of cancer. These are:

  • Stop smoking: this is the best present you will ever give yourself.
  • Stay in shape: be active and keep a healthy bodyweight.
  • Eat and drink healthily: limit alcohol and choose a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables.
  • Be SunSmart: protect yourself in the sun and take care not to burn
  • Look after number one: be aware of any body changes and go for screening.

For further information on Reduce the Risk click here.

For more information about different types of cancer, diagnosis and treatment for patients and their families, visit Cancer Research UK's patient information website CancerHelp UK.

The NHS Breast Screening Programme

For further information on the NHS Breast Screening Programme contact Sarah Gibbs or Caroline Greenaway in the press office on 020 7025 7510 or email screening@westminster.com. Information can also be found at the NHS Cancer Screening Programmes’ website.

  • The NHS Breast Screening programme provides free breast screening every three years for all women in England aged 50 and over. Women aged between 50 and 70 and registered with a GP are automatically invited every three years. There is no upper age limit for breast screening and so women over 70 can make their own appointments by contacting their local breast screening unit.
  • Women are encouraged to make an informed choice about whether or not to attend for screening. The programme aims to provide balanced information to assist them in making a decision. Along with the invitation, women receive a copy of a leaflet entitled Breast Screening -The Facts. Developed in collaboration with Cancer Research UK, Oxford University and women, the leaflet clearly explains the purpose of breast screening and the benefits and limitations of the test. It is available in 19 different languages.
  • The report 'Screening for Breast Cancer in England: Past and Future', published in 2006, reviewed all available evidence on the benefits and risks associated with the NHS Breast Screening Programme to draw firm conclusions about its effectiveness. It is available on the screening programmes' website.