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Q&A: Breast Cancer in Young Women

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While the research was well done, the increase in breast cancer in young women needs to be studied further, says Kruper: "The big question is why?"

That's not known from the study. Experts speculate it could be related to lifestyle changes, such as delayed childbearing, among other possibilities.

The study researchers speculate that improvement in imaging methods or increasing use of imaging may have meant patients were put in a higher ''stage'' group at diagnosis, resulting in more women being classified as having advanced cancer. While they found no direct evidence of that in the study, they say it could still be possible.

"We need to find out if it is a true phenomenon," Kruper says. Next, researchers could focus on why the increase is happening.

Q: Do the study findings suggest younger women not at high risk of breast cancer should begin to get routine mammograms or other imaging tests?

Absolutely not, Lichtenfeld and Kruper agree.

Q: What about breast self-exams?

"The American Cancer Society does not recommend routine breast self-exams," Lichtenfeld says.

Years ago, many organizations promoted breast self-exams, he says, distributing brochures and water-proof reminder cards to hang in the shower. "Then research showed that organized breast self-exam programs really did not lead to a reduction in the severity of breast cancer," he says.

Now, the American Cancer Society says that breast self-exams are ''an option for women starting in their 20s."

In the study, the researchers did not have any information on how the breast cancer was found initially or whether the women did breast self-exams.

Breast exams by a health care professional are recommended every three years for women in their 20s and 30s, and annually for those 40 and older, the society says.

Women should develop breast awareness, Lichtenfeld says. "They should know how their breasts normally feel, so when they shower or dress and feel something different than what they felt before, they should know they need to get that attended to," he says.

More often than not, he says, the changes are normal and noncancerous, but that should not be assumed by a woman or her doctor. 

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