A quarter of patients with secondary breast cancer had to visit their GP three or more times before they got a diagnosis, a survey suggests.
In the UK, 35,000 people are living with the incurable form of the disease.
The charity Breast Cancer Now said it was unacceptable that some people whose cancer had spread were not getting early access to treatments which could alleviate symptoms and improve their quality of life.
“For too long now, the worrying perception that everyone survives breast cancer has masked the heart-breaking reality for 11,500 families in the UK that lose someone they love each year,” it said.
The advanced, or metastatic, form of the disease means the cancer has spread through the blood and created secondary tumours in the bones, liver, lung or brain. It cannot be cured and patients stay in treatment for the rest of their lives.
Breast Cancer Now’s survey of 2,100 people in the UK with secondary breast cancer found that just 13% were told of the symptoms to look out for if their cancer spread. Four in 10 said they felt their symptoms had not been taken seriously before they were diagnosed, BBC News reports.
Although breast cancer survival rates have significantly improved over the last 40 years in the UK, there are still around 11,500 deaths from breast cancer each year – mostly from secondary breast cancer.
Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, from the Royal College of GPs, said doctors understand the importance of timely cancer diagnosis and are highly trained to identify possible symptoms of cancer and its recurrence.
But she said some symptoms were very difficult to interpret because they are vague in the initial stages or similar to other, more common conditions.
She said GPs need better access to the right diagnostic tools and training to use them.