Young women and breast cancer: What you need to know

Group of Young Women
Did you know that breast cancer is actually less common among women under the age of 40? In the U.S., the number of diagnoses amounts to less than 5 percent. (American Cancer Society, Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2009-2010.)

Risk factors for young women

Some women under the age of 45 are at a higher risk for getting breast cancer at an early age compared with other women their age. You may have a higher risk if:

  • You have close relatives (parents, siblings, or children) who were diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer when they were younger than 45, especially if more than one relative was diagnosed or if a male relative had breast cancer.
  • You have changes in certain breast cancer genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2), or have close relatives with these changes.
  • You have an Ashkenazi Jewish heritage.
  • You were treated with radiation therapy to the breast or chest during childhood or early adulthood.
  • You have had breast cancer or certain other breast health problems such as lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), atypical ductal hyperplasia, or atypical lobular hyperplasia.
  • You have been told that you have dense breasts on a mammogram.

Tell your health care provider if you notice any change in your breasts.

What you can do to reduce your risk

Although breast cancer screening cannot prevent breast cancer, it can help find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat. Talk to your health care provider about which breast cancer screening tests are right for you, and when you should have them.

In general, it is important that you:

  • Know how your breasts normally look and feel. If you notice a change in the size or shape of your breast, feel pain in your breast, have nipple discharge other than breast milk (including blood), or other symptoms, talk to your health care provider right away.
  • Talk to your health care provider if you have a higher risk. If you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer or other risk factors, you should talk to your health care provider about ways to manage your risk. If your risk is high, your health care provider may suggest that you get genetic counseling and be tested for changes, called mutations, in your BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. They may also talk to you about getting mammograms earlier and more often than other women, whether other screening tests might be right for you and medicines or surgeries that can lower your risk.

Many factors can influence your breast cancer risk, and most women who develop breast cancer do not have any known risk factors or a history of the disease in their families. However, you can help lower your risk of breast cancer in the following ways:

  • Keep a healthy weight.
  • Exercise regularly (at least four hours a week).
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Don’t drink alcohol, or limit alcoholic drinks to no more than one per day.
  • Avoid exposure to chemicals that can cause cancer (carcinigens).
  • Try to reduce your exposure to radiation during medical tests like mammograms, X-rays, CT scans and PET scans.
  • Breastfeed your babies, if possible.

Information adapted from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Susan G. Komen for the Cure®.