When Girls Aloud star Sarah Harding published her memoir earlier this year, the singer had a message for fans about the breast cancer which would go on to take her life.
She wrote: “Please girls – please everyone – don’t let anything get in your way – get checked out if you’re worried about something.”
Aged 39, Sarah “slipped away peacefully” at the weekend, just a year after she shared the news of her devastating diagnosis.
She had previously told how she he had been “in denial” about her symptoms at first.
But tests revealed the lump she had hoped was a cyst was in fact a malignant tumour.
Around 55,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the UK. Of those, around 2,300 are aged under 40.
But with mammogram screening recommended for women aged 50 and above, Clare O’Neill, healthcare engagement coordinator at charity Coppafeel! says breast awareness is crucial for younger women in the fight against the disease.
And getting into the habit of looking for early signs, from our teens onwards, is a must.
“Checking our breasts and knowing what to be aware of is the best tool we’ve got,” says Clare, 38, who herself was diagnosed with breast cancer at 33.
“It’s never too early to start getting into the habit, so from our teens or puberty onwards would be advisable.”
There are various reasons mammograms aren’t recommended for women under 40, from the fact eight in 10 women diganosed with breast cancer are over 50, to the fact ultrasounds are more effective in detecting changes in younger breast tissue.
“Breast cancer in young women is most commonly self-detected. We are the ones who discover the changes in our own bodies so awareness and keeping an eye on ourselves is the best tool we’ve got.
“The analogy I use is that we brush our teeth twice a day. We don’t go to the dentist to do this for us. So we need to keep an eye on our breasts. Check them once a month, and if you spot something different, that’s when you go your GP.”
Clare’s own battle with the disease started in 2017 when she spotted some dimpling on one of her breasts while looking in the bathroom mirror. “Once I noticed the dimple I felt around and found a lump on my right breast,” she recalls. “It felt more like an area of hardness really, and it helped to compare it to the other side which didn’t feel the same.”
Clare, a qualified nurse, was diagnosed with stage 2 oestrogen positive breast cancer.
“Fertility is often a big factor for younger women facing a cancer diagnosis,” says Clare. “It’s not for everyone of course, but it definitely was for me.
“I went through two cycles of IVF within about six weeks, and went straight to surgery after that.”
Clare had her tumour removed, as well as some lymph nodes, and then faced a gruelling course of radiotherapy.
Now four years clear, Clare says she is grateful for the treatment she got from the NHS – and that she went for help early.
“We haven’t had any children,” she says. “The hormone treatment I’ve had has brought on early menopause, but I know I was given the best chance to have children I could have had. I know it’s difficult to know when to go to our GPs with things, and very often we think, ‘oh it’s nothing’.
“But the GPs we speak to at the charity want to see people, and when we know our bodies and can explain the changes we’ve noticed that’s a massive help.”
The latest figures, from 2009-2013, showed the five-year survival rate for women with breast cancer aged 15 to 39 was slightly lower than it was for women aged 60 to 69 – 85% compared to 92%.
But Clare is optimistic that the picture has got better since then. “My hope is that awareness has improved among the younger age demographic in that time,” she says.
“The reality is, survival rates are really good and if you catch it early enough breast cancer is curable.
“Breast cancer does show itself, so the most important thing we can get out there is information about the signs and symptoms.”
Addie Mitchell, clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Now, says women should make checking their breasts a lifelong habit as anyone could be affected.
“There’s no single cause of breast cancer,” she says.
“Many women may know that a lump can be a possible sign of breast cancer, but it’s vital to know that there are other symptoms to be aware of too.
“This could be nipple discharge, dimpling or puckering of the skin of the breast, the breast looking red or inflamed, or swelling in the upper chest or armpit.”