Although younger women are generally not considered at risk for breast cancer, 11 percent of all new cases in the United States occur in women under 45. Young women can and do get breast cancer, but with knowledge and awareness, it can be treated.
“Diagnosing breast cancer in women under 40 is often difficult because their breast tissue is denser than women who are older,” says Dr. Marilyn Norton, a hematologist and oncologist affiliated with the Douglas & Nancy Barnhart Cancer Center at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. “When a mass is discovered, the cancer tends to be at an advanced stage and less likely to respond to treatment.”
Who is at a higher risk for breast cancer?
Too often, young women think they aren’t at risk and wait too long or don’t seek medical care at all. Annual mammograms are generally not recommended until age 40, but women at high risk should talk to their doctor to determine the right screening schedule.
These risk factors for breast cancer are important for women of all ages to consider:
- A personal or family history of the disease
- Being overweight
- Not being physically active
- A genetic mutation like the BRCA1/BRCA2 genes
- Dense breast tissue
- Lifestyle factors like diet and alcohol use
- Race and ethnicity
Breast cancer treatment options and challenges
Treatment for breast cancer usually varies by the extent of the disease, not by age. Treatment options may include surgery, such as a lumpectomy or mastectomy; radiation therapy like partial breast irradiation, which offers benefits such as reduced treatment times and highly effective treatment plans; chemotherapy; and hormone therapy.
“Women treated for breast cancer at younger ages often also have increased challenges pertaining to sexuality and fertility,” explains Dr. Norton. “Chemotherapy can damage the ovaries and cause a young woman’s periods to become irregular or stop altogether.”
However, there are ways a woman can preserve fertility, including storing embryos or unfertilized eggs, as well as the use of certain drugs that can shut down the ovaries during treatment to protect them from being damaged. Talk to your doctor about your fertility options if you have been diagnosed with breast cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, research has not shown a clear benefit of physical breast exams, done by either a health professional or by yourself, for breast cancer screening. If you are younger than 45 and think you might have a higher risk of developing breast cancer, talk with your doctor about screening options that are right for you.