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Does Sarah Harding's death and a trend of younger women being diagnosed with breast cancer mean age should be taken out of the equation?

by Alisha Puri, medical negligence solicitor at Irwin Mitchell

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK. About one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime.

In England, breast screening is currently only offered to women aged 50 to 70 every three years.  It is therefore up to women under the age of 50 to carry out a self-exam at least once a month. The rationale behind this is that women under the age of 50 generally have a lower risk of breast cancer and mammograms are not as effective in younger women because their breast tissue is denser.

Sarah Harding's death shows under 50s get breast cancer

However, that’s not to say that women under the age of 50 do not get breast cancer. Sarah Harding from Girls Aloud recently tragically lost her life. She was aged 39. 

An article in the Daily Mail about a 31-year-old mother-of-two who died of breast cancer is starting to show a trend of very unfortunate women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age. 

Sinead Richards had found a lump and visited the doctor, only to be told that, it could not be breast cancer because she was “too young.” Ms Richards initially put off visiting the doctors for two months because she did not think it would be cancer.

Cancer diagnosis delay concern  

Is this really the right message to send to women? My concern is that more women are likely to suffer a delay in diagnosis because they don’t think their symptoms are anything to worry about due to their age.

American studies show that amongst a projected 231,840 new cases of invasive breast cancer in the US, an estimated 26,393 women will be under 45 years of age. There is evidence to suggest that younger women generally face more aggressive cancers and lower survival rates.

Inadequate medical examinations can play significant role in cancer diagnosis delays

As a medical negligence solicitor, I have seen many cases where a patient has not been referred to an appropriate specialist leading to a delayed diagnosis of cancer. Age is usually a factor in that decision-making process. 

I wonder whether age can unconsciously play a part in a health professional’s patient examination. Are they less vigilant? Do they ask the right questions? 

I have seen inadequate examinations and the failure to obtain a full patient history play a significant role in delay in diagnosis of cancer cases in young patients.

Should cancer guidelines change?

Perhaps it is time for the guidelines to change. There should be a focus on the patient’s presenting symptoms and medical history, which should then lead to a thorough examination regardless of a patient’s age.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting patients and families affected by cancer at our dedicated section

For details on how and when to examine your breasts please visit the Cancer Research website

There should be a focus on the patient’s presenting symptoms and medical history, which should then lead to a thorough examination regardless of a patient’s age.”