Healthy Living: Be clear about cancer, experts urge over 70s

Christine Harrison, aged 72, of Stannington Road, who has recovered from breast cancer and is now backing a new campaign to raise awareness of the disease among women over 70.
Christine Harrison, aged 72, of Stannington Road, who has recovered from breast cancer and is now backing a new campaign to raise awareness of the disease among women over 70.
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Like most women diagnosed with breast cancer, the news that she had the life-threatening disease came as a huge shock to Christine Harrison.

The former hospital support worker was aged in her early 60s when a routine mammogram at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital picked up what appeared to be chalky deposits in her left breast.

However, further scans revealed that she had, in fact, developed a tumour, and required speedy surgery and follow-up treatment.

Christine, from Stannington in Sheffield, has since recovered, and - aged 72 - is backing a new campaign by Public Health England urging more women in their seventies to be aware of the symptoms of breast cancer.

According to Government figures, one in three women who get breast cancer are over 70.

In 2011 - the most recent year from which statistics are available - 126 women over 70 were diagnosed in Sheffield, with 42 dying.

In Rotherham 72 cases were registered with 27 deaths, and in Barnsley 61 older women were diagnosed and 23 died.

Meanwhile in Doncaster 85 women over 70 were told they had breast cancer, with 31 dying.

Despite this, the age group is not routinely screened for the condition, although plans are being rolled out to extend mammograms up to age 73.

Experts fear older women may be dying needlessly because they wrongly assume the threat of the disease has passed them by.

Lack of awareness of symptoms other than a lump, such as changes in the shape or size of the breast, is believed to be one of the reasons for this, which the campaign - called Be Clear On Cancer - is aiming to change.

“I never thought it would happen to me,” said Christine, who has five grandchildren and is married to retired engineer Harry, 75.

“But no-one is immune from it, so that’s why it’s best to go and be checked out.

“I was diagnosed early because it was picked up through a mammogram. If that hadn’t happened, it would have been too late.”

Christine underwent a lumpectomy procedure to remove the tumour at the Hallamshire, followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy at Weston Park Hospital.

She was also supported by Cavendish Cancer Care, where her daughter-in-law works.

“When I was told I had full-blown cancer it was like someone had knocked me down in the street with a 10-tonne weight.

“I just had to pick myself up off the floor and told myself I had to face up to whatever was round the corner.

“I didn’t stop doing anything - I never had sickness from the treatment and managed to carry on with my daily routine.”

Dr Cathy Read, from Public Health England’s Yorkshire and Humber Centre, said: “Every week around 25 women over 70 from our region are diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Spotting it earlier can make a real difference, but research shows that women over 70 have low awareness of breast cancer symptoms, other than a lump.

“They’re also more likely to delay presenting to their GP with breast cancer, which could ultimately affect their chance of survival.

“Don’t assume you’re past it or dismiss any symptoms as a sign of ageing.”

Tell-tale signs to look out for include a lump or pain in the breast or armpit, nipple changes, changes to skin on the breast, and changes in the shape or size of a breast.

The campaign will see national adverts running on TV until March 16.

Sean Duffy, national clinical director at NHS England, added: “It is clear we are losing far too many older women to breast cancer.”

Visit www.nhs.uk/breastcancer70 for more details.