Following a year-long enquiry, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Breast Cancer has launched its new report highlighting stark geographical inequalities in breast cancer.
Although we know that overall outcomes for breast cancer patients are good and have improved over recent years compared to other cancers, the inquiry found that breast cancer treatment, care and support varies across the country. In particular, there are significant variations in the diagnosis of secondary breast cancer across the country. In some regions, many women are being treated for another condition before being diagnosed with secondary breast cancer, and in some cases women are being diagnosed as an emergency at A&E.
I was diagnosed with primary breast cancer in 2006, age 30. During the 3 years prior to my diagnosis of secondary breast cancer, I sought medical help for depression, sudden stoppage of my periods, acute indigestion and occasional unexplained vomiting. Neither the specialists nor my GP ever connected my symptoms to my initial breast cancer diagnosis, which I always highlighted. I trusted the ‘experts’ and often felt like a hypochondriac.
Following a couple of bouts of sickness, I again sought GP support which eventually resulted in an abnormal liver function test. My GP asked me if I drank a lot, before it was confirmed I had extensive secondary breast cancer in my liver and bones. He informed me of my secondary diagnosis on a Friday night with no offer of any support or advice, and things did not improve greatly going forward. In an instant, my lovely imperfect life was stopped in its tracks - I seriously considered whether I’d be better off dead.
My hospital later told me they don’t like to talk about secondary breast cancer as it frightens people. All medical professionals and patients must be able to recognise the symptoms, so patients can access treatment and support and their condition can be stabilised for as long as possible. It’s not about frightening people - it's about education.
What can be done?
The APPG on Breast Cancer recommends NHS England should deliver on the ambition of the Cancer Strategy to ensure GPs are able to diagnose secondary breast cancer early, as well as considering other ways patients for patients with a previous breast cancer diagnosis to ‘get back into the system’ quickly and easily if they’re worried it has come back.
Local NHS bodies should also consider how they can work with GPs to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of secondary breast cancer.
How can you help?
You can contact your MP now and ask them to write to the local bodies responsible for publishing a workforce plan for your area.