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Q&A: Breast Cancer in Young Women

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WebMD Health News

stethoscope and pink ribbon

Feb. 28, 2013 -- Young women found the news surprising and more than a little scary: Cases of advanced breast cancer have been rising in women 25 to 39 over the past three decades, researchers reported this week.

From 1976 to 2009, the number of cases of advanced breast cancer in younger women at the time of diagnosis increased, the researchers found, from 250 a year to 850 a year. 

Although those numbers sound scary, you have to take into account that the population of young women grew in that time period. When you look at the percentage of new cases, the increase is small and shows they nearly doubled: from 1.5 of every 100,000 younger women in 1976 to about 3 per 100,000 in 2009.

WebMD turned to two experts familiar with the study to offer perspective on the findings and suggestions on what younger women should do to protect their breast health. Len Lichtenfeld, MD, is deputy chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society. Laura Kruper, MD, is director of the Cooper Finkel Women's Health Center and co-director of the Breast Cancer Program at City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center in Duarte, Calif. 

Q: Can you put this new finding in perspective for younger women?

"Younger women should not become overly alarmed at the headline about the increased risk of advanced breast cancer in young women," Lichtenfeld says.

That's not to dismiss the seriousness of such a cancer diagnosis, he says. "It's a serious problem and it's especially difficult for young women and their families to go through."

However, he says, breast cancer in women age 40 and younger is not common. About 7% of all breast cancers occur in women before age 40.

For most younger women who are considered at average risk for breast cancer, the new study should serve primarily as a reminder to become more aware of their breast health, Lichtenfeld says.

A woman is considered at average risk if she does not have a strong family history of breast cancer or have genetic mutations (such as BRCA1 and BRCA2) that raise risk, he says.

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.

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