Young Women and Breast Cancer

Why do "young" women get breast cancer?

When it comes to breast cancer, "young" usually means anyone younger than 40 years old. Breast cancer is less common among women in this age group. In 2001, less than 5 percent of all breast cancer cases occurred in women under age 40.

However, women who are diagnosed at a younger age are more likely to have a mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. These genes are important in the development of breast cancer, and women who carry defects on either of these genes are at greater risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. If a woman carries a defective BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, she may have a 50 percent to 85 percent chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime. In addition, having a mother, daughter or sister who has or had breast cancer also increases a young woman's risk of developing breast cancer. So while the risk of breast cancer is generally much lower for younger women, there is still a high risk for some.

If you are concerned about your genetic risk, ask your doctor to refer you to a genetic counselor or a breast cancer specialist who will discuss in detail what your own risk may be and can talk about genetic testing and prevention options.

Diagnosing breast cancer in younger women can be more difficult because their breast tissue is often thicker than the breast tissue of older women. By the time a lump can be felt in a younger woman, it is often large enough and advanced enough to lower her chances of survival. In addition, the cancer may be more aggressive and less responsive to hormone therapies. Delay of diagnosis in younger women is a special problem because it is so rare for a younger woman to get the disease. As a result, younger women are often told that a lump is just a cyst and to wait and watch it. Tell your doctor if you notice a change in either of your breasts, and think about getting a second opinion if you are not satisfied with his or her advice.

A Helpful Tip for Younger Women

It is important for younger women to become familiar with how their breasts look and feel through monthly breast self-exams (BSE) beginning by age 20. The best time to perform BSE is just as your monthly period ends. During BSE, if you discover a lump or notice any unusual changes in your breasts, see your health care provider for a clinical breast exam.

Clinical breast exams are recommended for all women beginning at the age of 20, and thereafter, every 3 years, or every year if you are age 40 or over. If you are under age 40 with a family history or other risk factors you should talk with your health care provider about risk assessment, when to start getting mammograms and how often to have them.

If done regularly, these exams help to detect any problems early, and increase the chances of survival.

Source: The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation