Breast cancer awareness month – too many patients let down by medical professionals

Posted: 19/10/2015


October 2015 is breast cancer awareness month, a worldwide annual campaign to highlight the importance of breast awareness, education and research and to raise funds for the various organisations that provide support for breast cancer research and breast cancer sufferers and their families. 

Breast Cancer Care, a UK wide charity providing care, information and support to people affected by breast cancer, has recently produced the following statistics: 

  • Breast cancer is the second most common cause of death from cancer in women in the UK
  • Nearly 12,000 people die from breast cancer in the UK every year
  • One in eight women in the UK will develop breast cancer
  • Every year nearly 55,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK, the equivalent of one person every 10 minutes
  • Breast cancer also affects men but it is rare with around 400 men diagnosed each year
  • The three main risk factors are gender (being female is the biggest risk factor), age (older women are at higher risk) and family history/genetics.

However Breast Cancer Care also highlights that more than eight out of 10 (85%) people survive breast cancer beyond five years.

Philippa Luscombe, partner in the Penningtons Manches clinical negligence team who specialises in cases involving a delay in diagnosis of cancer, comments: "Breast awareness, early diagnosis and prompt treatment are essential but there is more work to be done to ensure that the medical profession adequately protects those at risk. A high proportion of the breast cancer clinical negligence cases that we see involve a delay in diagnosis. 

“We hope that breast cancer awareness campaigns with high profile events like ‘wear it pink’ and ‘no bra day’ will encourage patients with any concerns to be firm with their doctors about considering a breast cancer diagnosis and for the medical profession to be responsive to these concerns. There are many guidelines in place and there can be no excuse for GPs failing to know and adhere to them. From our experience, if the guidelines were applied consistently, more women would receive earlier diagnosis and, in some of those cases, that would make the difference between curable and non-curable disease."

Penningtons Manches has identified the following trends where patients with breast cancer have been let down by the medical profession in the diagnosis of their cancer: 

  • GPs who think that a lump or lumpiness is hormonal but, rather than arranging a review after a few weeks to see if it has changed or resolved (as they should do), they send patients away with reassurance and no follow up
  • Inadequate knowledge of or adherence to guidelines for patients with breast pain or lumps where there is a significant family history
  • Poor performance of imaging where ultrasound and mammograms fail to identify potential abnormalities
  • Failures of notifications – hospitals sending letters to wrong GP practices or GP practices filing results and correspondence without action
  • Low index of suspicion rather than high index for patients who have previously had breast cancer and are being screened following a long, disease-free period
  • Assumption that lumps in pregnancy are pregnancy related rather than potential tumours
  • GPs making non-urgent referrals and/or not following up referrals.

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