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Breast Cancer in Young Women

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What Is Different About Breast Cancer in Younger Women? continued...

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

Delays in diagnosing breast cancer also are a problem. Many younger women who have breast cancer ignore the warning signs -- such as a breast lump or unusual nipple discharge -- because they believe they are too young to get breast cancer.

Many women assume they are too young to get breast cancer and tend to assume a lump is a harmless cyst or other growth. Some health care providers also dismiss breast lumps in young women as cysts and adopt a "wait and see" approach.

Should Women Under Age 40 Get Mammograms?

In general, regular mammograms are not recommended for women under 40 years old, in part because breast tissue tends to be more dense in young women, making mammograms less effective as a screening tool. In addition, most experts believe the low risk of developing breast cancer at a young age does not justify the radiation exposure or the cost of mammography. However, screening mammograms may be recommended for younger women with a family history of breast cancer and other risk factors.

Digital mammography may be a useful alternate to a standard mammogram, as digital mammography is more sensitive in detecting abnormalities in the presence of dense breast tissue.

What's the Best Way for Younger Women to Screen for Breast Cancer?

The American Cancer Society (ACS) says that breast self-exams are optional for women starting in their 20s. Doctors should discuss the benefits and limitations of breast self-exam with their patients.

Regular clinical breast exams performed at least every three years by your doctor are recommended for women beginning at age 20. The ACS also recommends annual screening mammograms starting at age 40. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), on the other hand, does not recommend routine screening for women in their 40s. For women between the ages of 50 and 74, USPSTF experts say, women should have screening mammograms every two years and none after age 74. 

When you need a mammogram is a personal decision between you and your doctor. If you're over 40, talk to your doctor about when you should begin mammogram screening. Women younger than 40 who have a family history or other risk factors for breast cancer should discuss their risk and an appropriate screening schedule with their health care providers.

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