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Breast Cancer in Young Women

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Younger women usually don’t think about getting breast cancer. After all, under 7% of all breast cancer cases happen in women under 40. But it can happen at any age, and it’s important to be aware of your risk factors, regardless of your age.

The following put you at higher risk:

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  • A personal history of breast cancer or some noncancerous breast diseases.
  • A family history of breast cancer, particularly in a mother, daughter, or sister.
  • History of radiation treatments to the chest before age 40.
  • Having a specific genetic defect (called BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation).
  • Getting your period before age 12.
  • For some women, your age when you had your first child.
  • Other risk factors include heavy alcohol use, high intake of red meat, dense breasts, obesity, and race.

Some studies suggest that taking birth control pills in the previous 10 years slightly increases the risk for developing breast cancer. Other studies, however, show no such effect.

Hormone replacement therapy with estrogens and progestins has been linked to a higher risk of breast cancer development.

What Is Different About Breast Cancer in Younger Women?

Diagnosing breast cancer in women under 40 years old is more difficult, because their breast tissue is generally denser than in older women. By the time a lump in a younger woman's breast can be felt, the cancer may be advanced.

In addition, breast cancer in younger women can be aggressive and less likely to respond to treatment. Women who are diagnosed at a younger age also are more likely to have a mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.

Delays in diagnosing breast cancer can cause problems. Many younger women ignore the warning signs -- such as a breast lump or unusual nipple discharge -- because they believe they’re too young to get breast cancer. They may assume a lump is a harmless cyst or other growth. Some doctors may also dismiss breast lumps in young women as cysts.

Should Women Under Age 40 Get Mammograms?

In general, regular mammograms aren’t recommended for women under 40 years of age, in part because breast tissue tends to be dense, making mammograms less effective. Also, most experts believe the low risk doesn’t justify the exposure to radiation or the cost of mammography. But mammograms may be recommended for younger women with a family history of breast cancer and other risk factors.

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