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Q&A: Breast Cancer in Young Women

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"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. 

Q: Are symptoms of breast cancer in younger women the same as in older?

Yes, Lichtenfeld says. These may include a mass in the breast, unexplained pain, a change in the texture of the skin, redness, or inflammation.

Any changes in the nipple should be looked at, too, says Kruper, as well as an enlargement in one breast only. 

Q: What should a woman do if she notices any of these symptoms?

"Go see your doctor and expect the symptoms to be taken seriously," Kruper says.

Q: What can women under 40 do to lessen breast cancer risk?

"Maintain a healthy body weight and exercise regularly," Lichtenfeld says. "Follow a healthy diet, preferably more plant-based than meat-based."

He gives the advice to keep a healthy body weight, he says, despite a lack of evidence of a link between obesity in childhood or young adulthood and breast cancer. "On the other hand, in postmenopausal women, obesity is a risk factor increasing the risk of breast cancer," he says.

Exercise should be consistent, Kruper says. She tells her patients to get in 40 minutes, four to five times a week. It should be a good cardiovascular workout, she says -- ''not just Pilates or yoga."

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