Poverty 'linked to breast cancer deaths'

Breast screening
Image caption Scientists looked at what stage of the cancer the tumours were being diagnosed

Hundreds of women from the poorest backgrounds in England are dying needlessly of breast cancer, according to researchers.

Data presented at the National Cancer Research Institute conference showed poverty was linked to 450 breast cancer deaths a year.

Catching the tumour late is thought to be a major explanation for the deaths.

The Department of Health said "much more" could be done to diagnose and treat cancer earlier.

Cancer charities and the researchers urged women to see their GP promptly.

'Harder to treat'

Scientists from Cambridge and Leicester universities used data from 20,738 patients in the east of England who had breast cancer diagnosed between 2006 and 2010.

They looked at what stage of the cancer the tumours were being diagnosed. The later the diagnosis, the more advanced the tumour and the harder it is to treat.

Women from the most affluent areas were catching their tumours earlier, the data showed.

The study found that if women from more socially deprived backgrounds could match the level of diagnosis among the more affluent, 450 lives could be saved each year in England.

One of the researchers, Dr Gary Abel, of the University of Cambridge, told the BBC it was not entirely clear why poverty affected women's chances of survival.

"But we think it's to do with both symptom awareness amongst the more deprived women and also what action they take once they find that there is something wrong - and how quickly they go to their GP," he said.

"What we seem to see is that women from more affluent areas will go straight to their GP, seek help immediately. Whereas women from more deprived areas maybe tend to hold back before going.

He called for a "renewed effort" to boost awareness campaigns, pointing out that around 70% of those with breast cancer were diagnosed by their GP - not through the national screening programme.

"Clearly this research shows that there is still work to be done and perhaps we need to move beyond just telling people what the symptoms are and encouraging people to go and see their GP as quickly as possible."

'More to do'

Dr Julie Sharp, of Cancer Research UK, said: "Other research shows that women from deprived backgrounds are more likely to feel embarrassed or worried about going to their GP, but it's important for women to take that step as going to the GP promptly could make all the difference."

"All women should be aware of how their breasts normally look and feel because we know that early diagnosis is one of the most important factors in whether breast cancer treatment is effective."

Eluned Hughes, head of public health at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, added: "By focusing on improving early diagnosis, particularly in deprived areas, we can have most impact in stopping women dying from breast cancer.

A Department of Health spokesman said much more could be done to diagnose and treat cancer earlier.

"We are spending £450 million to help diagnose cancer earlier, which will save thousands of extra lives every year, and we are investing more than £170 million over four years to expand and introduce pioneering new methods of screening for cancer.

"We are also committed to reducing inequalities in cancer care - that's why our Be clear on cancer campaigns are aimed at more disadvantaged groups and try to build awareness of cancer symptoms."

Previous research by Public Health England has shown a strong link between poverty and health. Cancer, heart attacks, strokes, lung disease and liver disease are all more likely in areas of social deprivation.

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