'Don't wait to check for breast cancer'

Delaying diagnosis for the No 1 cancer among women in Hong Kong increases risk of having larger tumours and requiring a mastectomy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 September, 2014, 4:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 September, 2014, 8:33am

About a third of Hong Kong women with breast cancer symptoms wait more than three months before seeing a doctor, increasing their risk of larger tumours, mastectomy and death.

This was the warning from the city's Breast Cancer Foundation after it analysed data from 2,242 patients who had completed treatment for the cancer.

"We found that the tumour size is bigger, the number of nodes involved is higher and also the need for mastectomy is higher, and their chance of survival is compromised," foundation founder Dr Polly Cheung said yesterday, referring to patients who delayed diagnosis.

Breast cancer is the number one cancer among women in Hong Kong, accounting for 26 per cent of cancer cases. In 2011, it killed 552 women.

Occupation, marital status and a history of benign breast conditions were closely associated with patients delaying seeking medical attention, or "self-delay", the report showed.

Low-skilled workers are 50 per cent more likely than unemployed people to delay seeing a doctor if they notice breast cancer symptoms. Cheung said women should see a doctor within a month of finding a lump in their breast and not allow their busy lives or fear to cause delays.

"They will leave it until they ulcerate or bleed; they think these are the symptoms when you need to see a doctor, not a painless lump," she said.

Patients who delayed seeing a doctor for three or more months were 50 per cent more likely to have larger tumours and these tumours were more likely to be diagnosed as stage three to four, the most advanced types of cancers, the report said.

The research, conducted for the Hong Kong Breast Cancer Registry, found no significant delay in care, diagnosis or treatment by medical professionals.

The Department of Health does not offer proactive screening for breast cancer, such as invitations to women over a certain age, unlike on the mainland, in Taiwan and in Singapore. Screenings can help with earlier diagnosis, which can reduce the need for treatments like chemotherapy and mastectomy.

The department said it did not offer population-based mammograms for women who show no symptoms of the cancer because limited accuracy could lead to false-positives, over-diagnoses and over-treatment and do more harm than good.

Cheung said women should be more aware of the disease and see a doctor promptly as the survival rate for breast cancer is high if it is dealt with early.

The report found the top three risk factors for breast cancer in Hong Kong was a lack of physical exercise, no breastfeeding experience and a high level of stress.

"Breast cancer is the most important threat to women in Hong Kong," Cheung said.