Advising with empathy and experience

Delays in diagnosing secondary breast cancer.

One in four patients with secondary breast cancer had to visit their GP three or more times before they received a diagnosis, a new survey indicates.

A breast cancer charity, Breast Cancer Now, says there should be greater awareness that the disease can spread to other parts of the body.

In the UK, 35,000 people are living with the incurable form of the disease.

Breast Cancer Now said it is "unacceptable" that some people whose cancer had spread were not getting early access to treatments that may alleviate symptoms and improve their quality of life.

The charity said: "For too long now, the worrying perception that everyone survives breast cancer has masked the heartbreaking reality for 11,500 families in the UK that lose someone they love each year."

The advanced, or metastatic, form of the disease means the cancer has spread through the blood and created secondary tumours in the bones, liver, lung or brain. It cannot be cured and patients stay in treatment for the rest of their lives.

Symptoms of secondary breast cancer can vary depending on where the cancer has spread to, but common signs include: unexpected loss of weight or appetite, discomfort or swelling under the ribs or across the upper abdomen; severe or continuing headaches, altered vision or speech, feeling sick, breathlessness or a dry cough, loss of balance or weakness or numbness of the limbs; lumps or swellings under the arm, breastbone or collarbone and bone pain unaffected by pain relief.

Breast Cancer Now's survey of 2,100 people in the UK with secondary breast cancer found that only 13% were told of the symptoms to look out for if their cancer spread.

And four in 10 said they felt their symptoms had not been taken seriously before they were diagnosed.

Breast cancer is the most common type of UK cancer, with around 55,000 new cases every year.

Although UK survival rates have significantly improved during the last 40 years, there are still around 11,500 deaths from breast cancer each year, mostly from secondary breast cancer.

Chair of the Royal College of GPs, Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, said: "GPs and our teams are working flat out to do the very best we can for all our patients.

"We understand the importance of timely cancer diagnosis and are highly trained to identify possible symptoms of cancer and its recurrence."

But she said some symptoms were "very difficult to interpret because they are vague in the initial stages" or similar to other, more common, conditions.

Prof Stokes-Lampard called for GPs to have better access to the right diagnostic tools and training to use them.