Young Women and Breast Cancer

Jeannette Vagnozzi Health Guide
  • Breast Cancer is typically considered a disease of older women.  We are often shocked when we hear of the 26-year-old or the 34-year-old receiving a cancer diagnosis.  While the percentage of women with breast cancer under age 40 is small, young women can and do get breast cancer.  I am living proof.


    Over 11,100 young women age 40 and under in the U.S.will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.  While great strides have been made in breast cancer treatment in the last twenty years, the survival rate for young women lags behind that of our older cancer counterparts.  In fact, few people are aware that breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women ages 15 to 54.

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    There are several reasons why breast cancer poses a higher risk for young women.  First and foremost, diagnosis is difficult.  Breast tissue is thicker so lumps are often bigger and the cancer more advanced before felt or seen on a mammogram.  Due to the lower risk, doctors often delay diagnosis assuming that the lump is the more common non-threatening cyst.  Young women also have more active hormone levels that don’t always respond as well to traditional hormone therapies. Young women diagnosed with breast cancer more frequently have the genetic mutation (BRCA1 & BRCA2) placing them at a 50 to 85 percent increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer.


    With the deck stacked against us, young women face greater hurdles and much more aggressive treatment.  But with all the research that is being conducted in the field of breast cancer why have we not seen comparable advancements in survival rates of young women vs. older women?  The primary reason is that we are an unrepresented population in research studies. And while younger, healthier women often physically handle treatment better, the fall out from a breast cancer diagnosis and aggressive treatment create long-term issues that must be addressed.


    Being the youngest one in the chemo room can make you the center of attention, but it can also make you feel very isolated.  I often felt a kinship with the older breast cancer patients I sat with for hours while getting chemo; however, when the 67-year-old grandmother who had been happily married for 42 years told me that a good man wouldn’t even notice my bilateral mastectomy I wanted to hide and cry.  She did not understand the issues that suddenly consumed me:  relationships, body image, fertility, premature menopause, long-term side effects from aggressive treatments, facing multiple surgeries for reconstruction, and the impacts of a life threatening illness on my career among other things.


    Not only do young women need to find each other to find a mutual support system, we also need to become advocates for our own cause.  We have to lobby for support, request that studies include young women, educate the young women around us about early detection, and educate our medical careproviders. There is no denying it.  Young women can and do get breast cancer. I am living proof.

Published On: March 05, 2007