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What you should know about breast cancer in young women

What you should know about breast cancer in young women

When you think about breast cancer, you may think it’s only diagnosed in older women. After all, that’s why mammograms are recommended beginning at 40, right? Breast cancer in young women, though, is becoming more common.

Researchers aren’t sure why breast cancer is more commonly being diagnosed among younger women these days. It corresponds with a similar increase in colorectal cancer diagnoses among young adults and may be related to lifestyle or environment in some way. Having a family history such as a sister or mother who had breast cancer as a young woman doubles your risk for breast cancer.

While we may not know the exact causes, you can take action to protect your health. Read on to learn more about breast cancer in young women and what the trend means for you.

The facts about breast cancer in young women

The American Cancer Society estimates that 310,720 cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in American women this year. Many of those cancers will be diagnosed in women 50 and older. In fact, “getting older” is listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a risk factor. Older women also more commonly have other risk factors for breast cancer, including dense breasts, a personal history of breast cancer or another type of cancer, and previous treatment with radiation therapy.

Despite the prevalence of breast cancer in women 50 and older, the rate of young women being diagnosed with breast cancer has been climbing for the past two decades, a trend which has increased in the last few years. According to the Young Survival Coalition, more than 250,000 Americans living today were diagnosed with breast cancer before age 40.

Breast cancers found in adolescents and young adults tend to be faster-growing and a higher grade (one factor in cancer staging). They’re also more likely to be detected in a later stage, when they’re larger and have spread, because screenings aren’t recommended for most young women.

Triple-negative breast cancer, which lacks the three receptors typically used to treat the disease, is more common in younger women, especially Black women and Hispanic women.

Steps to protect your breast health

It can be sobering to think you’re at risk of developing breast cancer at a young age, but being aware of your risk doesn’t mean you need to be afraid of it. You can take action to lower your risk:

  • Know your personal risk factors. Read through the list of risk factors and identify any you have. In addition to the usual risk factors, note that African American women are at a higher risk of breast cancer as young women.
  • Decide on a screening strategy. The American College of Radiology recommends that all women discuss their risk with their providers by age 25, including whether they may need to begin mammograms before age 40 or have additional testing. If you’re between ages 35 and 40, one baseline mammogram is covered by most insurance companies, so you can know if you should start screenings early or have them more frequently and if additional imaging should be considered.
  • Get to know your breasts. While formal breast self-exams are no longer recommended, it’s important for you to be familiar with the look and feel of your breasts. Take a good look at them regularly and palpate the tissue to see if anything has changed. Any changes should be discussed with your provider.
  • Take a hard look at your lifestyle. While many risk factors for breast cancer in younger women can’t be changed, there are also some related to lifestyle habits. Do what you can to protect yourself by exercising regularly, eating a diet with fruits and vegetables, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting your alcohol consumption and not smoking.

Be proactive about your health! Pay attention to how your body looks and feels and see your primary care provider and women’s health provider regularly. While that won’t eliminate your risk, it can help spot cancer earlier, when it’s most treatable.

Concerned about a lump or other potential symptom of breast cancer? Schedule an appointment with a women’s health provider to have it checked out.