As last year’s fifth most common cause of death from cancer in Australia, breast cancer is a deadly disease – but one of the biggest risks associated with the illness stems from late diagnosis. We know that early intervention significantly increases the chances of survival, yet so many women (and some men – yep, men can get breast cancer too!) are getting their diagnoses at the later stages. Here’s why.
The five-year relative survival rate for localised breast cancer – this means it’s in the early stages – is about 99%. Yeah, those aren’t bad odds. But here’s the scary part – that rate drops to 86% for regional-stage breast cancer and 28% for late-stage breast cancer. That’s a whopping 70% drop in chances of survival between early and late-stage breast cancer. Before we unpack 3 of the biggest contributors to late-stage diagnoses, let’s take a look at what makes them more dangerous than the early stages.
Advanced Disease Stage: Late diagnosis often means that the cancer has advanced to a higher stage, which can be more challenging to treat. At advanced stages, cancer cells may have spread to nearby lymph nodes or other organs, reducing the chances of complete eradication.
Limited Treatment Options: Advanced-stage breast cancer may have fewer treatment options available, and treatment may be more aggressive and less effective. Late-stage cancer may require more extensive surgery, stronger chemotherapy, or radiation therapy that can have increased side effects and risks.
Lower Survival Rates: Late-stage breast cancer is associated with lower survival rates compared to early-stage cancer. Early detection and treatment offer a better chance of achieving a full recovery or long-term remission.
Reduced Quality of Life: Late-stage breast cancer and its treatments can significantly impact an individual's quality of life. The physical and emotional toll of aggressive treatments and the potential for ongoing symptoms can affect daily functioning and wellbeing.
Increased Healthcare Costs: Treating advanced breast cancer can be more expensive due to the need for more aggressive interventions, prolonged hospital stays, and a higher likelihood of complications.
Psychological Impact: A late-stage breast cancer diagnosis can be emotionally distressing for the individual and their loved ones. Coping with a late diagnosis may lead to feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, and uncertainty about the future.
Limited Surgical Options: In some cases, late-stage breast cancer may require mastectomy (removal of the breast) rather than breast-conserving surgery. This can affect body image and self-esteem.
Risk of Metastasis: Late-stage breast cancer has an increased risk of metastasis, where cancer cells spread to distant parts of the body, such as the bones, liver, lungs, or brain. Metastatic breast cancer is generally more challenging to treat and manage.
Now onto the reasons so many people are diagnosed late – after all, it would be ideal if everyone could get their diagnosis in the early stages, but there are a few obstacles that make this near impossible.
Lack of Screening or Routine Checkups
One of the primary reasons for late breast cancer diagnosis is the absence of regular screening and routine healthcare check-ups. Mammograms, clinical breast exams, and self-breast examinations can help detect breast cancer at an early, more treatable stage. However, some individuals may skip or delay these screenings due to various reasons, including a lack of awareness, fear, or limited access to healthcare services. But, as we’ll see below, sometimes even those who seek out regular screenings can miss the early stages of cancer.
Asymptomatic or Unrecognised Symptoms
In some cases, breast cancer may not present noticeable symptoms in its early stages. As a result, individuals may not be aware of any changes in their breasts or may dismiss mild symptoms as unrelated issues. Breast cancer can sometimes develop without causing pain, lumps, or visible changes, making it difficult for individuals to recognise that there might be an underlying problem. The situation is made all the worse when women seek help for their symptoms from their GP, but are sent away without further investigation into the cause root, opting instead to brush off the unusual symptoms.
Misinterpretation or Misdiagnosis
Breast cancer symptoms can sometimes be misinterpreted or misdiagnosed as benign conditions, leading to delays in the correct diagnosis. For example, a breast lump or nipple discharge may be initially considered non-cancerous. Moreover, misinterpretation of imaging results or biopsy findings can also contribute to delayed diagnosis. Misdiagnosis can occur due to human error, such as misinterpreting mammogram or biopsy results. Radiologists and pathologists play critical roles in the accurate diagnosis of breast cancer.
Variability in Interpretation: The interpretation of breast imaging and pathology results can vary among different healthcare providers, which can lead to differences in diagnosis.
Complex Cases: Some breast cancers are more challenging to diagnose because they may present with atypical features, have overlapping characteristics with benign conditions, or involve rare subtypes of cancer.
If you have concerns about a breast cancer diagnosis or are unsure about your treatment plan, seeking a second opinion from another qualified healthcare provider or a specialised breast cancer centre is a valuable step – doctors don’t always get it right, and the only way to put your health first is to be your own ambassador. Second opinions can provide additional insights and confirm the accuracy of the diagnosis.
Head on over to Breast Cancer Network Australia for more information.
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