Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in US women, affecting about 1 in every 8 women. It typically affects women older than 45, which is why most physicians recommend getting your first mammogram at age 40 or later. However, in recent years, experts have noticed an increase in the incidence of breast cancer in younger women. Currently, about 9% of all new cases of breast cancer in the United States are found in women younger than 45 years and research in the UK shows that one in five breast cancers (or about 10%) occurs in women under 50.
A breast cancer diagnosis can be devastating for women at any point in their lives but can pose unique challenges to younger patients. For one, breast cancer in younger women is often found at a later stage. This is in part due to the fact that some healthcare providers might be inclined to dismiss or adopt a “wait and see” approach in response to a breast lump in a patient younger than 40. Additionally, breast tissue in younger women is denser, which makes diagnosis more difficult, and most women will only get their first mammogram at age 40, in line with current recommendations.
Breast cancer symptoms can also be more severe in younger women, and cancer more aggressive and difficult to treat. Both breast cancer diagnosis and treatment in women under 40 are accompanied by challenges related to fertility, finances, isolation, early menopause symptoms, body confidence issues as well as an impact on sex and relationships.
It is still unclear what’s behind the rise in breast cancer diagnoses among young people. Early research suggests genetics might be at play, with breast cancer in younger women having a greater hereditary component than cancer in older women. Patients with certain genetic conditions, such as the BRCA mutation, are generally advised to begin screening for breast cancer at 25 rather than 40 so if you have a family history of breast cancer, you might want to get a referral for genetic counseling. The good news is that early detection and treatment can dramatically increase survival chances in both young and older women.