One in three cases of breast cancer are in women aged 70 and over – an age group that is not routinely screened, new figures show.
Around 13,500 women aged 70 and over are diagnosed with breast cancer in England every year, according to data from Public Health England, which is launching a campaign to highlight the issue.
Those aged 70 and over account for more than half of all breast cancer deaths every year, with around 5,400 women in this age group dying from the disease.
Survival rates among the over-70s are generally lower than in younger women and, compared with countries such as Sweden, the UK has far more older women dying from breast cancer.
At present, the breast screening programme in England invites women for screening every three years from age 50 to 70.
This routine screening programme is being extended up to the age of 73, with roll-out planned across England by 2016. Women over 70 currently have to ask if they want screening.
In Scotland, women are screened routinely up to the age of 71. Women aged 71 and over can only be screened if they self-refer to their local screening centre.
Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, only women aged 50 to 70 are invited for screening. The same is true for Wales.
Dame Sally Davies
Public Health England is launching a new Be Clear on Cancer campaign to tell older women “don’t assume you’re past it”.
Women are being urged to visit their doctor if they spot any changes in their breasts. Experts believe a lack of awareness of symptoms that are not a lump - such as changes in the shape or size of the breast - could be one of the reasons older women do not seek help.
A poll of 1,500 women of all ages found that 67% of those aged 70 and over incorrectly think women are equally likely to get breast cancer regardless of their age. In fact, a woman’s risk of breast cancer increases with age.
England’s chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, welcomed the campaign.
She said: “Survival rates from this disease decrease with age; however, awareness of symptoms and risk is low amongst this age group, meaning these women are more likely to be diagnosed at a late stage. The earlier breast cancer is diagnosed, the better the chance of survival.”
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