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Breast cancer in young women

Breast cancer is relatively rare in younger women, which is why NHS breast screening invitations begin later in life.

Around one in five breast cancer cases affect women under 50 in the UK.

However, breast cancer is still the most common cancer in women under 40.

Around 1,300 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women aged 35-39 each year.

Although age is a key risk factor for breast cancer, other issues can increase a woman’s risk, including a family history of cancer.

Breast cancer risk factors

There are several factors that put a woman at increased risk of developing breast cancer, including:

  • A personal history of breast cancer or some non-cancerous breast diseases
  • A family history of breast cancer, particularly in a mother, daughter or sister
  • History of radiotherapy
  • Evidence of a specific genetic defect (eg BRCA1/BRCA2 mutation) - women who carry defects on either of these genes have a greater risk of developing breast cancer

Some studies have suggested that use of oral contraceptives (the Pill) results in a very slight increased risk of developing breast whilst a woman takes these. After 10 years of stopping using birth control pills the risk returns to normal levels.

What is different about breast cancer in younger women?

Diagnosing breast cancer in younger women (under 50 years old) is more difficult because their breast tissue is generally denser than the breast tissue in older women. By the time a lump in a younger woman's breast can be felt, the cancer is often advanced.

In addition, breast cancer in younger women may be aggressive and less likely to respond to treatment. Women who are diagnosed with breast cancer at a younger age are more likely to have a mutated (altered) BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.

Delays in diagnosing breast cancer also are a problem. Many younger women who have breast cancer ignore the warning signs - such as a breast lump or unusual discharge - because they believe they are too young to get breast cancer.

Many women assume they are too young to get breast cancer and tend to assume a lump is a harmless cyst or other growth. Some health care providers also dismiss breast lumps in young women as cysts and adopt a "wait and see" approach.

Can breast cancer in younger women be prevented?

Although breast cancer may not be prevented, early detection and prompt treatment can significantly improve a woman's chances of surviving breast cancer. More than 90% of women whose breast cancer is found in an early stage (stage 1) will survive.

When women learn at a young age about the risks and benefits of detecting breast cancer early, they are more likely to follow the recommendations regarding clinical examinations and mammograms. Young women also need to understand their risk factors and be able to discuss breast health with their health care providers.

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