Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer and the leading cause of cancer death in females worldwide. However, it’s uncommon in women younger than age 40. This group makes up only about five percent of breast cancer cases.
The bad news is that when younger women do get breast cancer it tends to be more aggressive and less responsive to treatment. Younger women are also more likely to have genetic mutations that predispose them to breast cancer.
So, what puts a woman at risk for getting cancer at a younger age? There are a few factors:
- Family history – Having a first-degree relative with breast cancer at a young age puts a woman at much higher risk for getting the cancer herself.
- Genetic mutation – The majority of breast cancer in younger women is driven by a genetic predisposition. The genes that are most concerning are BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genetic mutations are typically discovered during genetic testing, which is done when patients have a strong family history of breast cancer.
- Getting radiation to the chest and breast area before age 30
There are also risk factors that apply to any age, including being overweight or obese, smoking, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, having a high percentage of breast tissue that appears dense on a mammogram, having your first menstrual period before age 12, having your first full-term pregnancy after age 30 and never having a full-term pregnancy.
Because breast cancer in younger women tends to be more aggressive and less likely to respond to traditional treatments, we use targeted treatments including immunotherapies and modified genetic treatments. These are used in addition to traditional treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Although breast cancer diagnosis and treatment are difficult no matter a woman’s age, it can hit younger women particularly hard. Chemotherapy can bring on early menopause. Other types of treatment can negatively impact family life, sexuality and fertility. Fortunately, there are things we can do to help. For our younger patients who still want to have children, we look at ways to increase their chances of having a healthy pregnancy after breast cancer treatment. This may involve in vitro fertilization or freezing eggs. We also refer patients to our breast cancer survivorship clinic to help them find ways to get back to their pre-breast cancer lives.
Edward-Elmhurst Health takes a multidisciplinary approach to diagnosing and treating breast cancer. Our breast cancer navigators help guide patients through their treatment and recovery. We also have a high-risk breast cancer clinic – a program to help high risk patients through prevention and maintaining breast health.
To learn more about genetic testing or the Edward-Elmhurst Health high-risk breast cancer clinic, visit us online or call 630-646-2273.