Women younger than age 50 are at a greater risk for developing advanced breast cancer than they were 40 years ago. While breast cancer is still much more common in older women, a recent study shows young women today are two to three times more likely to have the disease than they were in the 1970s.
“What researchers do not yet know is why,” says Olivia Aranha, MD, PhD, medical oncologist and hematologist at Saint Francis Medical Center. “They need to conduct more studies to evaluate the cause.”
Researchers do have some theories as to why this phenomenon is occurring. First of all, the older a woman is when she has her first child, the greater her risk for developing breast cancer. Women today are waiting longer to begin their families than they did 40 years ago. Obesity and alcohol use also have been linked to increased
risk for breast cancer.
“I think both the doctor and the patient should be tuned in to the fact that this age group can get breast cancer, even though it is rare,” says Aranha.
While the American Cancer Society still recommends that women begin receiving annual mammograms at age 40, it strongly encourages all women to perform monthly breast self-examinations and tell their doctor if they find any lumps. “Younger women are more likely than older women to develop aggressive breast cancer, because their cancer tends to be hormone-resistant and spreads quickly to the lungs, bones and brain,” says Aranha. “That is why it is so important to catch it right away.”
Young women also should be aware of their family history. Women with several relatives who have had breast cancer or ovarian cancer need to talk to a genetic counselor. They may have genes such as BRCA1 or BRCA2 that increase their risk of breast cancer.
“Younger women are not as focused on their health as older women are,” says Aranha. “They may be trying to build a career or develop relationships instead. But they need to pay attention to their breasts, family history and screening guidelines so they can catch breast cancer before it becomes advanced.”
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