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Christina Applegate Seeks Early Detection for Breast Cancer

Inspired by her own battle with cancer, the actress fights to help young women at high risk for the disease.

Risk Factors for Early Breast Cancer

The doctor who helped Applegate decide on her mastectomy was Philomena McAndrew, MD, a medical oncologist with the Tower Hematology/Oncology Group in Los Angeles and associate medical director for breast oncology at the Saul and Joyce Brandman Breast Center at Cedars-Sinai. She says all young women --not just those at high risk, like Applegate -- need to be vigilant about breast cancer.

"Young women have to know they're not somehow protected from getting breast cancer until they're older," McAndrew says. "Christina, of course, faced a higher risk because of her family history [and genetic mutation], but even among women with no family history, we're seeing increasing risk of breast cancer in younger populations.

"There are a variety of reasons for this, including later first pregnancies, an increase in obesity, environmental exposures to things like hormones, and other factors -- things that have stimulated the proliferation of breast tissue more today than 100 years ago."

Scientists are still debating about some of these factors, such as whether exposure to chemicals in the environment that contain or mimic estrogen can lead to breast cancer. But there's little debate that a woman who has her first child in her 20s is more protected against breast cancer than one who doesn't get pregnant until her 30s.

"I know a girl whose cancer was found at stage III," says Applegate. "She'd gone in a year earlier feeling a lump, and the doctor told her it was probably just a calcium deposit and did no tests. If she'd had it taken out then, maybe it would have been a stage I cancer. Now it's in her lymph nodes, and she's dealing with a much worse situation."

Many young women involved in the Young Survival Coalition, an organization for young women with breast cancer, report similar experiences -- finding a lump or another suspicious change in their breast and being told by doctors that they're "too young for breast cancer."

Applegate's Mastectomy

Cancer has changed Applegate's life in many ways. She's become much more vigilant about her health in general. She has adopted a macrobiotic diet that she says offers her the reassurance that everything she's putting in her body is as healthy as possible.

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