A growing number of young women are being diagnosed with breast cancer, according to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Iowa. While the headline sounds alarming, experts told SurvivorNet that early detection and increased awareness may be a significant part of the increase.
“While the vast majority of breast cancer is diagnosed in women who are ages 50 and up, this important study reports that the incidence of stage one, two and three breast cancer is increasing among women aged 20-49 years, driven by increases in hormone receptor positive breast cancer,” says Dr. Payal Shah, an assistant professor of Hematology-Oncology at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Basser Center for BRCA at the Abramson Cancer Center.Read More
Of the sample of women, there were 149,821 whose “HR status” or hormone receptor status — which determines whether the cancer with grow in response to certain hormones — was known. The rate of diagnosis increased in all decades – 20s, 30s and 40s — for women with hormone receptor positivity. At the same time, HR-negative cancer declined for each age decade.
Many more women still get breast cancer after the age of fifty, but the number of women diagnosed between ages 20 and 29 with stage one, two, or three breast cancer, increase by 2 percent from 2000 to 2015. For women in their 30s and 40s, rates of diagnosis rose by about .3 percent per year.
Young women and breast cancer
Brittney Beadle was 18 years old when she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. When most of her classmates were thinking about graduation and the senior prom, Brittney was thinking about undergoing cancer treatment to save her life. Still, she has a really amazing outlook on life.
“I thought OK, I have to live with this, but I can do it, and I’m gonna live my best life possible,” Brittney says. “So I picked up and I moved to Florida and I’m like, this is it, I’m living my life. And I got a job at Universal Studios, where I always wanted to work.”
Breast cancer survivor Brittney Beadle talks about having breast cancer at a young age
Brittney also talked a little bit about dating after cancer, and said it can be a bit awkward when you first get back out there.
“It’s kind of awkward to be like, ‘Hey, just so you know, I don’t have nipples,'” Brittney says. But she has a good attitude about the whole ordeal. Brittney says once she came to terms with what really made her beautiful, she was able to feel comfortable getting back in the dating game … even if she still has to have the awkward conversations sometimes.
“When I was bald, when I didn’t have any breasts, that’s when I realized I’m beautiful just how I am,” Brittney says. “It’s not my boobs that make me, it’s not my hair that makes me, it’s just me that makes me beautiful. It’s from the inside.”
Why are more young women getting breast cancer?
According to Dr. Payal Shah, there are a lot of different reasons why the study might have concluded that there has been an increase in young women diagnosed with breast cancer. “The increasing incidence of cancer diagnosed in young women is certainly multifactorial, with some contributing elements that we don’t fully understand,” she says.
And said that one of those reasons might be the increased attention to breast cancer screening, which could result in more young women catching their cancer, “However we also know that the medical and patient communities are becoming more aware of breast cancer risk as well as genetic predispositions to breast cancer, so some part of what we are seeing may be reflective of this increased awareness.”
She also noted some technological changes that have impacted doctors’ ability to read young women’s breasts more clearly, which could lead to more diagnoses than we were capable of before. “Our imaging technology is better than prior years – mammograms can now include tomosynthesis, breast MRI for certain women is more widely available,” she said. “And these advances help us visualize dense breast tissue better than we previously could, so we are better able to characterize which lesions are suspicious and which are not.”
But she said that even with these advances, routine screening still isn’t recommended for young women, so most young women catch breast cancer when they notice something strange, “However, we don’t routinely screen young women, so they often only come to medical attention after they or their physicians notice an abnormality.”
And the study serves as an important reminder that if something abnormal does emerge, doctors and patients shouldn’t ignore it, “It is important to be aware of the rising cancer incidence among younger women, so that patients and physicians do not automatically assume that a breast lump in a young woman is not cancer.”
Information about breast cancer screening
The American College of Radiology guidelines recommend women get annual mammograms to screen for breast cancer beginning at age 40. Still, a huge number of American women are not up-to-date with recommended screenings.
Dr. Senayet Agonafer, radiologist at Montefiore Medical Center on the importance of getting screened for breast cancer
“One of the most frustrating things that I see in my office, and my practice is when a patient … comes in with a huge, golf ball breast cancer that could have probably been diagnosed at an earlier age if they were receiving their annual screening mammogram,” says Dr. Senayet Agonafer, a radiologist at Montefiore Medical Center.
If you’re unsure about when you should begin screening for breast cancer, Dr. Agonafer recommends talking to your doctor and getting all the facts you need to assess your risk. “You should absolutely be tested for your risk of breast cancer starting at the age of 30,” Dr. Agonafer says.