Almost half of women in the UK do not check their breasts regularly for signs of breast cancer, a national charity has revealed. A survey commissioned by Breast Cancer Now also found that one in 10 woman have never checked their breasts for new or unusual changes. As part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we spoke to a mum from Carnoustie who was diagnosed with the disease last year.
Susan Millar, 37, was told she had stage two breast cancer in July 2019 after experiencing a “shooting pain” through her breast. The pain was so severe she’d wake up when she rolled over.
“I would be driving to work and I’d get a shooting pain right through my breast,” she said.
“I think that went on for about a week or so and then the pain died down enough that I felt I was able to check and when I checked it I was really upset, I knew that wasn’t normal.
“I had three tumours, but it hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes.
“They had found two on the mammogram and MRI scan but it ended up being three.
“They were all quite big, like 8cm, 5cm and 3cm. They felt that one of them was a bit close to my chest wall so they were wanting to do chemotherapy and then radiation and then tamoxifen for ten years.”
The mum-of-three had a single mastectomy and reconstruction before having chemotherapy and radiation. She was also hospitalised for a week after developing sepsis which she says was due to the chemo.
Annually, around 2,300 women in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer aged 39 or under, and Susan adds that, due to her age, it was generally believed she had a cyst rather than cancer.
She said: “I went to the doctors, they kind of convinced me it was a cyst so when I went to the hospital – I was a bit shocked when I got told something different.
“I think it was just because of my age. Generally speaking they would have assumed it was a cyst. I got an ultrasound first and I knew as soon as the person left that it wasn’t good news as she went to get the breast consultant straight away.”
On Boxing Day last year Susan ended up in hospital after developing neutropenic sepsis due to the chemotherapy.
She said: “My immune system had hit rock bottom. When they did my bloods they found my neutrophils were at 0.0 which is the lowest you could get, so I was started off straight away on IV antibiotics and then a flush and then IV antibiotics and that went on for 48 hours I think. I was a lot sicker than I thought.”
After 15 sessions of radiation which finished in March this year, Susan has now been discharged from the oncology department.
“It’s a relief,” she said.
“I just take Tamoxifen every night now for the next ten years, that stops oestrogen. ”
Susan said although she had a good support system during her illness she struggled to admit she had cancer.
She said: “I had a really good support system. My work were fully supportive, they gave me all the time off I needed. My husband was brilliant, I had several friends that were really good and helped me out.
“I think in my head I just had to get through all the treatment and I didn’t want to ever admit to myself I had cancer at any point. I didn’t go to anything that was cancer related. To me that was then admitting to myself that it was cancer and that was a scary thing.”
Before her diagnosis, Susan says checking her breasts was not something she did and that she is not surprised by the statistic that says almost half of women don’t regularly check their breasts.
She said: “Before I felt pain I had never checked. I just assumed that I was too young. I just didn’t really think to do it if I’m being honest. I would maybe have checked myself if I had read something about it.
“A lot of people said to me that because I was in pain that it definitely wouldn’t be breast cancer.
“I suggest to all of my friends that they check themselves like once a month, make sure that they know what normal feels like to them.”
Susan adds that she is surprised that just 4% of breast cancer cases are diagnosed in women aged 39 and under.
“I am surprised as I met a lot of young people when I was in Ninewells, as well as older people but generally it was younger so I am very surprised it’s so low.” she said.
Charities urge women to carry out cancer checks
As part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, charities across the country are reminding women to get into the habit of regularly checking their breasts.
Breast Cancer Now have urged women to ensure they carry out routine tests every six weeks.
Manveet Basra, Head of Public Health and Wellbeing at Breast Cancer Now, said: “That one in 10 women have never checked their breasts really shocked me. Breast checking is quick, easy, and can help detect any breast cancer early, giving treatment the best chance of working.
“There’s no special technique – just get to know your breasts and what’s normal for you, so you can spot any new or unusual changes, and remember to check all parts of your breasts, your armpits and up to your collarbone for changes.
“Making this part of your routine – such as in the shower or when you apply moisturiser – can help you to do it regularly.
“Encourage your female friends and family to do this too; please don’t feel embarrassed talking about this simple step that could save your life!
“Many women may know that a lump can be a possible symptom of breast cancer, but it’s vital to know that there are other signs to be aware of too.
“This could be nipple discharge, dimpling or puckering of the skin of the breast, the breast looking red or inflamed, or swelling in the upper chest or armpit.
“Most breast changes won’t be cancer; however, get any new or unusual breast changes checked by the GP right away.
“I can assure you Covid-19 doesn’t change this – surgeries have safety measures in place to minimise the risk of the spread of Covid-19 and your GP wants you to get any breast changes checked out without delay.”
Meanwhile, CoppaFeel, which was set up 11 years ago by Kristen Hallenga, who was diagnosed with the disease at age 23, is aiming to create awareness among young people and give them the knowledge they need to get to know their bodies.
The charity has over 100 Boobettes who visit schools, colleges and workplaces to educate people on the charity and their missions.
Aimi Munro, a CoppaFeel Boobette from Carnoustie said: “CoppaFeel has been my therapy- being able to stand up and tell others my story and at the same time educate them on the importance of being breast aware has really helped me over the years deal with my BRCA1 mutation diagnosis as well as the preventative surgeries I have endured.
“Even though I celebrate boobs everyday Breast Cancer Awareness Month is so important, we need to make sure both men and women feel confident to be breast aware.”