More than half of British women do not know that the risk of breast cancer increases with age.
The charity Breast Cancer Care discovered in a survey that 58 per cent of women did not realise that their age has a major influence on the likelihood of contracting the disease.
Eighty per cent of the 44,000 people diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK each year are aged over 50, but of the more than 1,000 women questioned in the survey, older women were much less likely to know that they are increasingly vulnerable with age than younger women. Just 37 per cent of those aged between 35 and 44 and only 35 per cent of those aged between 45 and 54 were aware that age increases the risk of breast cancer.
The figures for women aged over 70 caused even greater alarm. More than half – 55 per cent – in this age group were unaware of the higher risk, and almost a third – 30 per cent – did not believe it necessary to check their breasts "at their age". And although 70 per cent of elderly women knew of their right to breast screening, only a quarter took up the opportunity.
Breast cancer campaigners reacted to the findings with dismay. Cherie Blair, who is patron of Breast Cancer Care, called for more women to take precautions against the disease. She said: "My aunt Audrey died of breast cancer aged 52, a year younger than I am now. She had discovered a lump in her breast, but through lack of awareness and embarrassment, didn't tell her doctor for several months. The evidence is clear that women are more at risk of breast cancer the older we get."
The BBC broadcaster Jenni Murray was diagnosed with cancer aged 56. She said: "It is shocking to see that the clear fact that the older we are, the higher our risk of breast cancer is still failing to reach the majority of women."
Another survey, by Breakthrough Breast Cancer, found that many older women were confused about the signs of breast cancer. Its poll, of 1,190 women aged over 50, found that a quarter thought that having a persistent cough was a sign of the illness, while 81 per cent believed that having a mole on their breast could be a sign of cancer.
Although 87 per cent of respondents did check regularly for lumps, knowledge of other early warning signs, such as inversion of the nipple or a discharge, appeared to be very rare.
Jeremy Hughes, chief executive of Breakthrough Breast Cancer said: "It's clear that despite breast cancer now being the most common cancer in the UK, women remain extremely confused about what they should be looking out for."
Carol Rawson, 67, was diagnosed with breast cancer in April after a routine screening appointment. She said: "I didn't have a lump, so would not have known I had anything wrong, and that could be the case for others."
Breast cancer accounts for nearly one in every three cases of cancer contracted by British women. More than 80 per cent of patients survive for five years or more after diagnosis. Treatment is most effective if the disease is diagnosed early. but 88 per cent of women aged over 70 said that since turning 70 they had not discussed breast screening appointments with their GP.