Younger women are generally not considered to be at risk for breast cancer, as fewer than 5 percent of all breast cancer cases occur in women under age 40.
Still, approximately 13,000 American women ages 15 to 39 are diagnosed each year. Young women can and do get breast cancer, but with knowledge and awareness, it's a battle you can win.
"Diagnosing breast cancer in women under 40 is often difficult because their breast tissue is denser than women who are older," says Dr. Marilyn S. 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 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 and/or inactive
- A genetic mutation like the BRCA1/BRCA2 genes
- Dense breast tissue
- Lifestyle factors like those related to childbearing, breastfeeding, diet and alcohol use
- Race and ethnicity
Studies show that white, non-Hispanic women have the highest overall breast cancer rate, but the disease has proven to be more deadly among Hispanics and African-Americans, which is likely due to societal factors pertaining to diagnosis and treatment.
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; and chemotherapy and/or hormone therapy.
Women treated for breast cancer at younger ages often also have increased challenges pertaining to sexuality and fertility. 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.
This story was updated in October 2017 to reflect updates to recommendations for breast exams. 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. There is very little evidence that these tests help find breast cancer early when women also get screening mammograms. Because of this, a regular clinical breast exam and breast self-exam are not recommended.