Breast Cancer in Teens: What are the odds?

Patient Expert

Thanks in part to increased breast cancer awareness over the past couple of decades, more women than ever – including teens and even pre-teens – go through the stress of believing they might have breast cancer. If you're a teenager or younger, you almost certainly don't have breast cancer – despite that lump you feel in your breast. Here's the information you need to put those cancer fears to rest.

You’re 12 years old, and your breasts are starting to grow. Putting on your bra one morning, you feel a lump. Lump = breast cancer, right? You panic. You’re scared to tell anyone, but terrified you might be dying. You turn to Google for help.

I believe this is the scenario for many of you younger women who end up on this site asking questions about cancer. And by young, I mean under 20 years old: in some cases, even younger than 13.

First of all, I’m really glad you’ve found us. Our HealthCentral breast cancer site is filled with solid, reliable information on breast cancer and other breast issues. You’ll want to bookmark us for the future – the distant future.

We’re glad you’ve visited, but – don’t take this the wrong way – we hope you won’t stop by again for a good long while.

FACT: Just five percent of all breast cancers are diagnosed in women under age 40.

Breast cancer is an older women’s disease; and by older, I don’t mean 30s and 40s, I mean 50s and 60s and 70s.

FACT: Breast cancer is extremely rare in women under age 20.

Exactly how rare is breast cancer in teens and pre-teens? So rare that’s it’s not tracked by any major agency, from the National Cancer Institute to the American Cancer Society.

There’s no official database for this age group, but estimates for breast cancer risk below age 20 range from 1 in 500,000 to 1 in a million. In other words: small. Very small.

FACT: That lump you feel under your nipple is probably normal.

During puberty, your breasts grow in spurts; you develop what’s called “breast buds,” small areas of hard tissue – lumps – that later expand to become a full-grown breast. Think of a flower opening up – thus the term “bud.”

These buds are usually felt directly beneath the nipple, and while they can be uncomfortable, they’re not breast cancer: they’re normal.

Not to say ALL breast lumps in teens are normal; just that the majority are. It’s very rare (see above), but girls can sometimes get breast cancer. Or more commonly (though still rarely), develop a breast infection that needs treatment.

An infection would also typically be accompanied by pain, redness, perhaps discharge, sometimes fever, and it would worsen quickly. If you feel a lump that’s just a bit uncomfortable or sore, with no other symptoms, it’s probably a sign of puberty.

FACT: The lumps you feel elsewhere in your breast are probably normal, too.

Your breast is made up of fatty tissue, glands, and fibrous tissue that holds everything in place. Especially when they’re young and growing, breasts can feel lumpy; without the abundance of fat that eventually surrounds everything, glands can feel like lumps, as can connective tissue. In other words, feeling a series of lumps in one or both breasts is normal.

What if you simply can’t stop worrying that you’re that “1 in a million?”

Yes, some teens and even preteens are diagnosed with breast cancer. But some people win the $300 million Powerball lottery jackpot, too. And some become President of the United States. Life is uncertain; this is a fact you’ll need to get used to.

As you grow and mature, you’ll learn to prioritize your worrying, concentrating on what’s more likely (not being able to pay your student loans) rather than less (being hit by a falling asteroid). But right now, you don’t have the maturity to control your emotions.

Best way to ease your fears? Share them with a responsible adult. Whether it’s your mom, an aunt, a friend’s mom, or your school nurse, tell someone about the lump or pain or spot. Yes, it’s embarrassing, but sharing your worry is a relief. People want to help; let them.

Finally, it might just take a trip to the doctor to give you the reassurance you really need. That’s OK; you’re not being silly, just concerned. If the only way you’ll feel better about your breasts is to be examined by a doctor, then do what you have to do for that to happen.

Looking ahead

Even when reach age 20, breast cancer risk is low. Statistically speaking, 1 in 1,837 women between the ages of 20 and 30 will be diagnosed. But this decade is when you should start to check your breasts regularly.

Once you’re in your 20s you’ll start having what’s called a clinical breast exam (CBE) every 3 years or so, as part of your annual physical. This exam consists of your doctor feeling your breasts for unusual lumps or other abnormalities. Once you “pass” your first CBE, you can feel your own breasts, so you know what “normal” feels like. This will be your baseline going forward, to identify any changes.

Until then? Worry about school. Stress over your annoying little brother. But breast cancer? Put it out of your mind. There’ll be time enough to worry about it later – say about 40 years from now.

See more helpful articles:

Is This Normal? A Teen Guide to Breast Development

Dear Sister: a Message to Our Teenage Readers

Breast Cancer Fears: What Are You Afraid Of?

Top 10 Breast Cancer Risk Factors

Guide to Healthy Breasts in your 20s and 30s

Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel_, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network. _