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Less educated women less likely to spot breast cancer symptoms

Women with fewer qualifications are less likely to recognise potential breast cancer symptoms, according to a Cancer Research UK-funded study in Psycho-Oncology.

The researchers at the University of Surrey surveyed a group of 961 UK women – educated to different levels – who had never been diagnosed with breast cancer.

They were asked to imagine they had a particular symptom and say what they thought the specific symptoms could be caused by. The researchers compared their answers to their level of education.

Not only were women with fewer qualifications – less likely to link the symptoms to breast cancer compared with university educated women, but they were more likely to want to avoid confronting a potential cancer.

The research showed that for women with fewer qualifications less than three in 10 mentioned breast cancer when asked what a nipple rash could be caused by and six in 10 mentioned breast cancer in relation to an arm pit lump.

Among university educated women four in 10 mentioned breast cancer in relation to a nipple rash and seven in 10 women in relation to an armpit lump.

Almost half of breast cancers are diagnosed in women over the age of 65. And this study showed that women aged between 60 and 69 were more likely to link the symptoms to breast cancer than women aged 47-59.

The team excluded women who had experienced breast cancer in the past from the study to rule out those familiar with breast cancer symptoms.

Dr Katriina Whitaker, lead author on the project, from the University of Surrey, said: “This study shows that better educated women are more likely to recognise breast cancer symptoms. We must find better ways to stop cancers being missed in the future for all women.

“We’ve asked women to imagine themselves with these symptoms and to predict how they would react, to understand the barriers to seeking medical advice. And now we need to speak to women who may have found or missed symptoms and find out why they sought help or why they overlooked their signs.”

Dr Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK’s head of health & patient information, said: “It’s really important that women are breast aware and report or unusual or persistent changes to their doctor. It’s vital that we get the message out to all women that more people are surviving breast cancer than ever before and that finding the disease early gives you a better chance of beating it.”

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