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Advanced Breast Cancer Rising in Young Women?


WebMD News from HealthDay

By Kathleen Doheny

HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Feb. 26 (HealthDay News) -- The number of younger women who have been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer has increased slowly, but steadily, since the 1970s, a new study indicates.

Over the past 30 years, the number of cases of metastatic breast cancer in women under the age of 40 has tripled, said Dr. Rebecca Johnson, medical director of the adolescent and young adult oncology program at Seattle Children's Hospital.

"The increase translates to about 250 cases per year in 1976, and 850 in 2009," said Johnson, who is also an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, in Seattle.

However, she stressed, the absolute increase was smaller. In 1976, the rate of advanced breast cancer in this age group (25 to 39 years) was 1.5 for every 100,000 women; in 2009, it was just under 3 per 100,000 women.

While the number of cases tripled, the rate only doubled because the base population of women grew over the 30-year period studied, Johnson explained.

The findings are published in the Feb. 27 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In contrast, Johnson said, no such trend has been found for diagnoses of earlier breast cancer in this younger age group or for diagnoses of all stages of breast cancer in older women.

Johnson couldn't say for sure what is driving the increase, as the study only looked at the number of women diagnosed with advanced disease over time. What is needed next, she said, is research to figure out what is fueling the trend.

"Young adults are the least likely to have medical insurance of all age groups," she noted, so that complicates the picture. Breast cancers in younger women also tend to be more aggressive than in older women.

Younger women often believe breast cancer can't happen to them, said Johnson, who had breast cancer in her 20s. When a younger woman does seek medical help for worrisome breast symptoms, she should expect the doctor to take the symptoms seriously and not suggest a prolonged period of watching and waiting. Typically, a doctor should schedule an ultrasound or mammogram screening, Johnson said.

The findings are not a reason to change current mammography screening guidelines, Johnson added. Many organizations recommend routine screenings beginning at age 40, although the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now recommends routine mammogram screenings need not begin until age 50.

The finding does stress the importance of younger women being aware of breast changes and the importance of seeking medical attention when they find such changes, she said.

For the study, Johnson and her team looked at data from the U.S. National Cancer Institute Registry.

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