“When young women are diagnosed with breast cancer, they face not only concerns about the breast cancer itself; they may also have issues with fertility and family planning, genetics, sexual function, as well as emotional hurdles that may be more difficult to handle compared to older women,” said Ann Partridge, MD, MPH, Clinical Director of the Breast Oncology Center and Director of the Program for Young Women with Breast Cancer at Dana-Farber.
“Many of these women are just starting careers, families or relationships, and having breast cancer at such an early age is the furthest thing from their minds.”
According to the American Cancer Society, about 5 percent of all breast cancer cases occur in women under the age of 40 in the United States. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in women; however, relatively little is known about breast cancer in women in their 40s and younger.
Partridge, who founded the Program for Young Women with Breast Cancer at Dana-Farber, said evidence shows that young age is a risk factor for disease recurrence and death.
It is controversial whether the poorer prognosis is a reflection of delays in diagnosis, differences in tumor biology, or the effectiveness of treatment, but growing evidence indicates that biologic differences may play an important role.
Risk factors for breast cancer in young women appear to be slightly different than they are for older women.
“Family history is the strongest risk factor for younger women,” said Partridge.
“Women who have a first-degree blood relative such as a mother or sister who have had breast cancer especially at a younger age may be a higher risk of developing the disease.”
The genetic risk can also come from the father’s lineage. So if the father’s sister had breast cancer, particularly at a younger age, that could increase a young woman’s risk for breast cancer.
In general, having a mother, father, daughter, or sister who has had breast cancer can increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer at any age.
Women who have a mutation or defect in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes are at greater risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. A genetic counselor can help discuss risk factors and suggest genetic testing options.
Delayed diagnosis in young women is an issue. Because it is rare for a young woman to develop breast cancer, any change in the breast may be minimized or ignored.
Partridge stressed the importance for all women to be aware of the warning signs. “Do not be afraid to go to the doctor if you’re concerned about any of these breast symptoms:”
- Lump or thickening in the breast, especially one that is growing or changing, as well as lumps under the arm or axilla.
- Skin changes on the breast, like swelling or a rash, warmth, redness, or darkening; or an itchy, scaly or sore nipple.
- Nipple discharge: “We’re worried when we hear about nipple discharge, particularly if it’s bloody,” said Partridge.
- Breast changes in size or shape, dimpling or puckering of skin.
- Pain in the breast or underarm that does not go away or gets worse over time. “There’s a common misperception that if it’s painful, it’s not breast cancer,” said Partridge.
“When young women are diagnosed with breast cancer, just as with older women, we try to tailor the treatment to the young women’s concerns as well as to the disease,” said Partridge.
Younger women are more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage, with more aggressive breast cancer, and therefore often require surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, as well as hormonal therapy.
“Treatment with chemotherapy, in particular, can be difficult because many younger women may be interested in having a baby after breast cancer and treatments may result in premature menopause and infertility,” Partridge said.
But for many women in their early 20s and 30s and who still have their menstrual cycles after chemotherapy, the ability to have children may be unaffected.
“The good news,” added Partridge, “is that with these treatments, the vast majority of these young women will live beyond breast cancer to have healthy lives.”