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Young women and breast cancer: What you need to know

Published: October 3rd, 2012

Category: Student Health Care Center Blog

Group of Young Women

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 the United States, about 5 percent of all breast cancer cases occurs in women under age 40. (American Cancer Society, Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2009-2010.)

Women who are diagnosed at a younger age are more likely to have a mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. Women who carry defects on either of these genes are at greater risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. If a woman carries a mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, she may have a 30 to 85 percent chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime. In addition, having a mother, father, daughter or sister with 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 young women, there is still a high risk for some.

Tell your doctor if you notice any change in your breasts.

If you are concerned about your genetic risk, ask your doctor to refer you to a genetic counselor who will discuss in detail what your risk may be. You can talk with your health care provider about genetic testing, screening tests, like MRI, or risk reduction options that might be right for you.

Diagnosing breast cancer in young women can be more difficult because their breast tissue is often denser than the breast tissue of older women. By the time a lump can be felt in a young 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. Delayed diagnosis in young women is a problem. Because it is rare for a young woman to get the disease, they are often told to wait and watch a lump. Tell your doctor if you notice any change in your breasts, and think about getting a second opinion if you are not satisfied with his or her advice.

A helpful tip for young women

Clinical breast exams are recommended for all women beginning at the age of 20, at least every three 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 or other imaging tests and how often to have them.

It is important to know how your breasts normally look and feel. See your health care provider if you notice any of these breast changes:

  • Lump, hard knot or thickening inside the breast or underarm area
  • Swelling, warmth, redness or darkening of the breast
  • Change in the size or shape of the breast
  • Dimpling or puckering of the skin
  • Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple
  • Pulling in of your nipple or other parts of the breast
  • Nipple discharge that starts suddenly
  • New pain in one spot that doesn’t go away

Information courtesy of Susan G. Komen for the Cure®

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