While the majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer are age 55 or older, about 14,500 women age 45 and younger are diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. each year. In recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, here are some facts about breast cancer all young women should know.
1. Genetic testing can help identify women who are at increased risk
While all women are at risk for breast cancer, women who have a family history of premenopausal breast or ovarian cancer or a family member with a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene are at a higher risk and should speak to their physician about genetic testing. Knowing the results may influence when, how, and how often women and their family members are screened for breast and other cancers, and whether it might make sense for them to consider medical or surgical risk-reducing strategies.
2. Maintaining a healthy routine is important
There is a chance cancer can recur after treatment, or that secondary cancers unrelated to the first may appear. For young women especially, who have many years ahead of them, maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine, as well as receiving proper, age-appropriate screenings, can help prevent cancer or detect recurrence early.
3. Breast cancer treatment can affect fertility
Young women who are treated for breast cancer with chemotherapy may be less likely to become pregnant, due to chemotherapy-related damage to the ovaries. Young breast cancer patients may not have been considering a family yet, which can make fertility a difficult issue to discuss with family or significant others. Young women may want to consider freezing their eggs or embryos to increase their chances of having children following treatment. This is an important issue for young women to discuss with their care team prior to treatment.
4. Breast cancer tends to be found later in young women
Since younger women are generally less aware of their risk and are less likely to be screened, breast cancers in young women (age 40 and younger) tend to be found later and in more aggressive stages. Exercising, maintaining a healthy body weight, reducing alcohol intake, regular monitoring through clinical exams, and reporting any new or concerning breast symptoms to a physician may help keep cancer risk at a minimum.
5. Treatment varies for each woman
Treatment for breast cancer varies depending on the type and stage of the cancer, but usually includes surgery, as well as chemotherapy and/or hormonal therapy and often radiation therapy. Many young women with cancer in one breast think that removing both breasts with a contralateral prophylactic mastectomy will improve their chance of long-term survival. However, removing just the cancer with a lumpectomy, followed by radiation therapy, is much less invasive and just as effective.
Some young women may also consider removing both breasts to prevent their chances of getting cancer later in life. While bilateral prophylactic mastectomies have reduced the risk of breast cancer in women who have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations or a strong family history of the disease, this is a major decision and women should discuss all of their options and the potential outcomes with their treatment team before making any surgical decisions.
To learn more about breast cancer in young women, visit the Program for Young Women with Breast Cancer at the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber. If you are a young woman facing breast cancer, consider attending our annual Breast Cancer in Younger Women: A Forum for Patients and Survivors, which features panel discussions and lectures on coping with breast cancer as a young woman.