Current estimates for breast cancer diagnoses in the UK suggest that 55,000 women each year receive a positive result.
In truth, that number hasn’t really moved in the last five or six years. It’s a number I’ve been quoting in various articles and blogs for a long time. What has changed, though, is the number of women under the age of 50 who receive a positive breast cancer diagnosis.
The reality of breast cancer is that while the chances of a woman under the age of 50 receiving a positive diagnosis are much lower than those aged 50 and above, cancer does not, broadly speaking, discriminate when it comes to age.
Any breast cancer diagnosis is devastating, whatever the age of the person receiving that news. But much like most diseases, we’re a pragmatic species that tends to understand and accept that with increasing age comes increasing risk.
That is less easy to argue for younger women, and even harder to justify in a society that is medically more advanced than it has ever been.
The charity Cancer Research estimates that some 10,000 women under the age of 50 will receive a positive breast cancer result in the next 12 months. 7,700 of these will be women aged between 40 and 50. The rest will be aged 39 and under.
It is almost impossible to reconcile those numbers when you consider the diagnostic tools that are at our disposal. That no provision is made for the under-50s to be offered some form of screening is nothing short of a disgrace.
I understand, of course, that publicly-funded healthcare is, by necessity, a process of financial triage. It is right that we divert funding to treat those at the greatest risk. By extension, it stands to reason that we provide more limited services for those at lower risk.
But the truth of cancer screening is that the default screening tool – mammography – is old technology that is ill-equipped to provide robust diagnoses.
Regular followers of this blog will probably be familiar with the statistics relating to mammography:
Only around 60-70 per cent accurate; proven to either miss tumours completely or, as bad, deliver a false positive diagnosis; at best able only to determine that you already have a disease that may be neither treatable nor curable.
And this level of unreliability available only by entitlement to women of between 47 and 73 years of age.
And the rest? Well, those who have a proven family history of breast cancer will usually be offered screening at an earlier age. The rest? They are excluded, seeking medical intervention only when they can determine through self-examination that they likely have a problem.
Discrimination of the worst kind through deprivation of a screening tool that is so woefully inadequate that Switzerland has already abandoned it as a tool for routine screening, and other Western nations are committed to reviewing its use in the future.
There are valid reasons why mammography on a routine basis might be unsuitable for younger women, not least the fact its already low accuracy in young women is made considerably lower by the density of the breast tissue.
The physical manipulation of the breasts itself that mammography entails also carries the risk of causing harm, while risk/benefit analysis for older women with a higher tendency to the disease rightly suggests the advantages of mammography largely exceed the drawbacks.
If mammography were the only viable diagnostic solution, I might be inclined to fall into line and argue that anything is better than nothing at all.
But the sad fact is that mammography isn’t the only option, and I still can’t understand why our public health services still refuse to do more to educate women about breast thermography – a non-invasive, risk-free screening method that is appropriate for women of any age and can be, when done correctly, be up to 95% accurate.
Thermography detects changes and irregularities in tissue temperature, which can be an early sign of a cancer risk by monitoring the heat in breast tissue.
Furthermore, it can diagnose a tumour up to ten years before a mammography can spot those alterations, making it a perfect screening tool for younger women who are not included in the mammography programme and who may, through lifestyle, nutritional and hormonal changes, be able to prevent breast tissue irregularities becoming anything more serious.
Breast thermography is a relatively quick test that gives the chance to consider those potential preventive measures, and when used in conjunction with mammography in older women to monitor breast health on a regular basis, it can also enable early therapeutic intervention.
Our computer assisted ThermoCheck© breast thermography provides our clients with greater comfort, but more women should be given the opportunity to make use of it.
In short, if the cancer industry is serious about fighting breast cancer, it must make sure that all women are aware of all of their options, not just the one that is unavailable to the 10,000 women who will be diagnosed with cancer before the age of 40.