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Global report reveals the hidden toll of breast cancer

People with breast cancer are continuing to face glaring inequalities and significant adversity, much of which remains hidden and unacknowledged by wider society and policy makers, according to a new global report published today.

The Lancet Breast Cancer Commission, part-funded by Breast Cancer Now, has highlighted the harsh reality faced by women around the world who are living with the disease.  

The report highlights a need for better communication between medical staff and patients and stresses the importance of early detection and improved awareness of breast cancer risk factors, with almost one in four cases (23%) of the disease estimated to be preventable. 

Additionally, the Commission carried out a pilot study, funded by Breast Cancer Now, which analysed the financial costs of breast cancer both to individuals and to the wider economy. The CASCARA study, which limited its scope to the UK to assess these impacts in a country where health care is free at the point of use, found that many people experienced a fall in income, job loss, and difficulty paying for travel costs to treatment following a diagnosis of breast cancer.

The Commission argues that these costs remain largely unacknowledged by policy makers and society, underscoring the importance of Breast Cancer Now’s ‘The Cost of Breast Cancer’ report which was published in partnership with Demos earlier this year.

This exposed, for the first time, the current impact of breast cancer – as one of the UK’s biggest health challenges – on the lives of those affected and the UK health system. The report warned that if nothing changes in the next decade, the annual cost of breast cancer to the economy could rise by 40% (to £3.6 billion) by 2034. 

The Commission also warns of the social and emotional impacts of breast cancer on patients, many of which, the commission argues, are not adequately measured. ‘The Cost of Breast Cancer’ attempted to put a figure on these impacts and estimated that wellbeing costs for people with breast cancer and their loved ones to support their reduced quality of life totalled £17.5 billion.

The Lancet has reinforced these findings, and their report serves as another wake-up call to governments and policy makers to engage with the growing health crisis of breast cancer. 

Furthermore, the Commission highlights that the number of people globally who are living with incurable secondary breast cancer is not recorded, and calls for all countries to implement mandatory reporting of cancer relapse.

As a result of over a decade of tireless campaigning by Breast Cancer Now, a secondary breast cancer audit is now happening in England and Wales to collect and analyse essential data. However, while the first data has recently been published, vital information on stage of diagnosis for patients is incomplete and it doesn’t include data on patients in Wales. 

Despite cancer strategies in Scotland and Northern Ireland committing to improve data collection for secondary breast cancer, this has not yet been delivered and doesn’t go far enough, stopping short of a full government-funded audit*.

Breast Cancer Now is warning that until the number of people with secondary breast cancer is consistently counted across the UK, the vital insights needed to improve the lives of people living with the disease cannot be delivered, denying them of the standard of treatment and care they deserve. 

Dr Simon Vincent, director of research, support and influencing at Breast Cancer Now, said: 

"Despite the incredible progress we’ve made in the prevention, detection and treatment of breast cancer over the last few decades, the Lancet Breast Cancer Commission, part-funded by Breast Cancer Now, highlights how much more still needs to be done for those living with this disease. 

“We know that breast cancer care in the UK is on the brink of disaster. Over 55,000 people are diagnosed each year in the UK, and more than 11,000 people tragically die from the disease. 

“Screening uptake is continually falling short of the 80% achievable target, and long waiting times that are often driven by workforce shortages are preventing many women from starting potentially life-saving treatment quickly. We often hear from people living with incurable secondary breast cancer that they feel overlooked and forgotten, and the devastating reality is that the insights so desperately needed to improve their treatment and care will remain out of reach until accurate and complete data collection is prioritised and implemented across the UK.  

“It’s also heartbreaking that right now in England, people with HER2-low secondary breast cancer are being denied access on the NHS to the life-extending drug, Enhertu. This decision could also determine whether people in Wales and Northern Ireland will be able to access this vital treatment, which is of grave concern. 

“We hope governments and policy makers both around the world and here in the UK will acknowledge the commission's roadmap for change and take urgent steps to improve support and treatment for people living with breast cancer. 

“We look forward to seeing the impact of this report as we strive to achieve our ambition that by 2050 everyone diagnosed with breast cancer will live and be supported to live well." 

Breast Cancer Now is the research and support charity here for anyone affected by breast cancer. Call their free helpline on 0808 800 6000 to speak to their expert nurses, or find out more and donate at breastcancernow.org

ENDS

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact the Breast Cancer Now press office at press@breastcancernow.org or call 07436 107914.

Notes to editors

*In Northern Ireland, there’s currently an audit underway, announced last February and funded by the charity Cancer Focus NI, delivered by the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry.

The full Lancet Breast Cancer Commission report and all related content is available here.

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