We typically do not think of breast cancer as a problem concerning younger women. Only five percent of breast cancer cases happen in women under age 40, according to the Cleveland Clinic; however, this cancer can occur at any age. 

Of all cases of breast cancer, only 1.8 percent occur in women in the 20 to 34 age group, according to an article in The New York Times. Ten percent of all cases occur in women in the 35 to 44 age range. 

The alarming aspect is the disease is more lethal in younger women than in older females yet women are typically told not to get mammograms until they are 40 or even 50. 

It is peculiar that at a time when the U.S. and other countries are making strides against cancer, young women are being identified with advanced incurable cancer, according to USA Today

Between 2000 and 2009, the number of American women in the 25 to 39 age group diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer rose by approximately 3.6 percent each year, based on a study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The real conundrum is this study did not offer any evidences of what is driving the increase. 

When a young female is diagnosed with breast cancer, she often has a mutated BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene, which is inherited. Breast cancer in young women tends to be uncompromising and doesn’t respond well to treatment.  Young women with breast cancer are 40 percent more likely to die from this disease than post-menopausal women with breast cancer. 

Older Versus Younger Women

Older women are more apt to find or notice a lump or cyst and report this to their doctor whereas a younger female may assume she is too young to get the disease and supposes the growth is harmless. 

Sometimes health care providers dismiss breast lumps in young females, believing they are benign cysts, taking the ‘wait and see’ attitude. 

Young women aren’t as likely to be insured as older women, so they may avoid going to the doctor even if they have felt a lump because they can’t afford to go. 

Read this next: Men Can Get Breast Cancer, Too

Furthermore, it is more challenging to detect breast cancer in women under the age of 40 because their breast tissue is usually thicker than the breast tissue in older females. Even if the women are examined by a physician, a lump may be overlooked. 

What is the Possible Link?

  • Girls are entering puberty earlier than in the past. The earlier a female starts menstruating, the higher her risk of breast cancer. Breastcancer.org reports women who began menstruating before the age of 12 as well as those who go through menopause after age 55 have an increased risk for breast cancer. Since the early 1990s, girls have been entering puberty earlier than before and breast development is occurring even prior to the onset of menstruation. This shift is attributed to the obesity epidemic and contact with hormone disruptors. Hormones prompt puberty and breast development. 
  • For five years after giving birth, a women is at a higher risk of acquiring breast cancer. The child-bearing years are typically in a woman’s late teens, twenties and thirties. It is believed the colossal hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy may fuel cancer. 
  • Females who have their first child after the age of 35 are at an increased risk of breast cancer more so than if they had never given birth, according to Patricia Ganz, who treats breast cancer in young women at the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of California-Los Angeles. 
  • The earlier breasts form, the sooner they are ready to intermingle with hormones inside and outside the body, as well as with chemicals found in products, which are hormone disruptors. The lengthier the interaction with hormones and hormone disruptors the bigger the danger of breast cancer. 
  • When a female starts menstruating later in life (after age 12) there is less time between breast development and her first full-term pregnancy. When a girl starts menstruating early, before age 12, there is typically a longer period of time between breast development and her first pregnancy. During this period, breast tissue tends to be overcharged, immature and especially susceptible to hormonal influences. 
  • The longer a woman has her menses, the greater her exposure to estrogen and progesterone, female hormones, and the higher her risk of acquiring breast cancer later in life. 

What Should I Do?

Mammograms are not normally recommended for women under the age of 40; however, when a female has a family history of breast cancer she should definitely get mammograms earlier than those who don’t have this risk factor.

Women 20 years of age and older should do monthly breast self-examinations, advises the American Cancer Society. Do the exam the day after your period stops.

Become accustomed to the way your breasts look and feel. That way you can readily detect any changes. 

 

Cindi Pearce is a graduate of Ohio University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in journalism back in the dark ages (aka before computers, the Internet and cell phones. Heck, before electric typewriters!) A former newspaper writer/columnist and photographer, her fiction and non-fiction work has been published in national magazines. A full-time freelance writer, as well as an avid gardener, an artist and yoga aficionado, Cindi is a Baby Boomer and proud of it. She has survived the gnarly challenges of the sandwich generation and lived to tell the tale. Cindi has somehow managed to stay married to her first and only husband for nearly 35 years. They are the parents of three grown children and the grandparents of one. She has five large, raucous dogs, five acres to mow on her beloved zero turn mower, and gets the biggest kick out of making people laugh on Facebook. (P.S. She refuses to cut her hair short.)