Most of us are aware of the statistics, 1 in 8 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Over 300,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. each year.  In all likelihood, many of us know someone personally or a friend of a friend who has the diagnosis. What many people may not be aware of is that approximately 12,000 of those women diagnosed with breast cancer annually are under the age of 40. Since the vast majority of these women are not undergoing routine screening, it is not until they are symptomatic and bring it to their physician’s attention, that the diagnosis is made. 

Breast cancer treatment in young women is fraught with several unique challenges including fertility, premature menopause, bone and cardiovascular health, sexual dysfunction, cognitive changes. Those are just the physical effects. There are career and family responsibilities to consider and the emotional toll which often does not fully present itself until many months following the initial diagnosis. If caught early, breast cancer is more likely to be cured. However, multiple population based studies have demonstrated that breast cancer at a young age is associated with a more aggressive biology and more likely to present at an advanced stage due to lack of screening in this population.

Cancer in a young woman raises concern for a hereditary cancer syndrome, however only about 5-10% of patients are ultimately found to harbor such a genetic mutation. Other risk factors may include obesity, oral contraceptive use, heavy alcohol or red meat consumption.

However, even in the absence of these identified risk factors, many young women find themselves facing this very scary diagnosis.

So, what can we do to raise awareness amongst the younger population and hopefully translate this to earlier diagnosis and better outcomes?

1. Educate, educate, educate

Routine clinical breast exams should begin at age 20 and occur every 1-3 years. During this evaluation, a woman should be educated regarding how normal vs abnormal breast tissue and lumps feel. And a persistent breast mass, even in a premenopausal woman, should be evaluated by a physician. If there is a family history of breast cancer, it is imperative to be aware of this history and the ages at which family members developed cancer, as this may have an impact on screening recommendations as an unaffected family member. In the average risk woman without a family history, breast cancer screening with annual mammography should begin at age 40.

2. Advocate for yourself

If a woman is told she is “too young” to have breast cancer, she needs to advocate for herself if she feels something is abnormal and seek appropriate medical attention.

3. Reduce risk

Exercise regularly, limit alcohol intake, consume a predominantly plant based diet.

4. Consider use of an app

The Keep A Breast Foundation believes that through a monthly routine of self-checks more people are likely to detect changes in their bodies quickly, will seek medical advice and potentially detect cancer early.

Keep A Breast Foundation recently launched a new app which will now focus on information, support, and most importantly, access. For the first time, a breast self-check app now connects users who think they may have discovered something during their check with a telehealth medical professional via Keep A Breast’s partnership with Carbon Health, a technology-enabled healthcare provider that combines smart technology with inviting clinics and a robust virtual offering. This means users will have direct, instantaneous support in the case where they may have found an abnormality.