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Sharp Health News

Breast cancer in young women: what are the chances?

Oct. 7, 2020

Two female friends walking outside
Is there such a thing as being too young for breast cancer? The answer is no. Young women don’t consider themselves at risk, but breast cancer can strike at any age.

Generally, 1 in 8 women will develop the disease during their lifetime. Those chances increase with age and most cases occur in women over 50; the median age is 62. However, about 13,000 women under age 40 are diagnosed every year, and more than 1,000 die.

While early-onset breast cancer is rare, it’s often harder to detect, more aggressive and has a higher mortality rate.

“It’s important for young women to visit their doctor regularly and keep up their annual checkups. Talk to your doctor if you notice any changes in your breasts,” says Dr. Reema Batra, a board-certified oncologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “Don’t ignore anything out of the ordinary.”

Part of the challenge is that mammogram screenings, which can detect the disease early, are not recommended until age 40. Even if the test were available, younger women have denser breast tissue, which can make it difficult to detect a tumor on a mammogram.

What are the chances?
“Although rare, I do see breast cancer in younger women more and more,” says Dr. Batra.

The American Cancer Society breaks down the probability of breast cancer by age group:
  • Women in their 20s: 1 in 1,479
  • Women in their 30s: 1 in 209
  • Women in their 40s: 1 in 65
  • Women in their 50s: 1 in 42
  • Women in their 60s: 1 in 28
Dr. Batra also notes there are unique psychosocial and emotional challenges younger women face that are different from older women. For example, they may be considering having children or adding to their families; starting or building their careers; or forming important personal relationships. They face other complex issues, including sexuality, which can be overwhelming.

What are the risk factors for breast cancer for women under 40?
“One risk factor that puts younger women at higher risk is a hereditary syndrome such as an inherited BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation,” says Dr. Batra. Women with a BRCA gene mutation are more likely to develop breast cancer, and more likely to develop cancer at a younger age.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), women may have a higher risk if they:
  • Have changes in certain breast cancer genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2)
  • Have close relatives who were diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer (particularly at age 45 or younger)
  • Are of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage
  • Were treated with radiation therapy to the breast or chest in childhood or early adulthood
  • Have had breast cancer or other breast health problems such as lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), atypical ductal hyperplasia or atypical lobular hyperplasia
How can women under age 40 lower their risk of developing breast cancer?
It’s important to remember that breast cancer in young women is rare. But there are a few things women under 40 can do to lower their risk.

  1. Live a healthy lifestyle. One of the most important things women can do, young or old, is to take care of themselves. Maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly (at least four hours a week), eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and limit alcoholic drinks to one a day.

  2. Know their family health history. If women have a first-degree relative (mother, sister, father or brother) who has had breast cancer, they should talk to their health care provider about early screening. Their provider can also counsel them on whether genetic testing is appropriate.

  3. Don’t miss annual health care visits. Women should see their health care provider at least once a year and make a breast exam part of the visit. Doctors should check for abnormal lumps that may be breast cancer or benign breast conditions, as well as lymph nodes in the underarm area. Visual abnormalities of the breasts and nipples can also be checked.

  4. Get to know their breasts. The Young Survivor Coalition reports that nearly 80% of young women diagnosed with breast cancer find their own breast abnormality themselves.
Dr. Batra says, “I’ve had many patients who have been diagnosed after a self-exam, despite having mammograms. It’s not a proven screening method to take the place of a mammogram, but it can’t hurt to examine yourself regularly. You know your body best and understand if there’s something new that was not there before. Talk to your doctor immediately about any changes.”

Learn more about mammography screening at Sharp HealthCare.

For the news media: To talk with Dr. Reema Batra, board-certified oncologist, about breast cancer in younger women for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at erica.carlson@sharp.com.

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