At age 30, the average U.S. women have a 1 in 208 chance of breast cancer diagnosis. At age 40, that increases to 1 in 65, and continues to increase over the course of her lifetime.
This may be why some people think of breast cancer as a disease that only affects women over the age of 40, and why, historically, mammograms and other breast cancer screenings aren’t recommended by medical professionals until this age.
And while the bulk of breast cancer diagnoses are in women over the age of 40, roughly 11% of all new cases of breast cancer in the United States are found in women younger. If you are under the age of 40, you are not immune from breast cancer, so it’s important to be educated so you can be an advocate for your health.
Knowing your body, and what it looks like when it’s healthy, is hugely valuable in early detection of breast cancer, especially in younger women. Beginning in your 30s, it’s valuable to add a self-breast exam to your monthly wellness routine. Breast tissue tends to be denser in younger women, so it is typical to feel lumps and bumps, but this is all the more reason to get familiar with symptoms of breast cancer and what is normal for your body. If you notice something unusual, let your health care provider know.
In addition to familiarizing yourself with the symptoms of breast cancer, you can also arm yourself with information about your individual risk. The National Cancer Institute offers a free Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool, which allows you to calculate your individual risk. For an even more detailed risk assessment, genetic counseling will look at your family history and may suggest genetic testing to identify if you carry genes tied to breast cancer. Individuals who test positive for certain genetic mutations can take preventive actions to reduce their risk of developing cancer, in some cases by as much as 90%.
Why Age Matters
Despite lower rates of risk, younger women are typically diagnosed with more aggressive breast cancers than older women. And those that are diagnosed with breast cancer are at higher risk of the cancer spreading to other parts of the body. Early detection, always valuable, becomes even more so in cases of aggressive breast cancer.
Due to the typically more aggressive breast cancer in younger women, the recommended treatment is also more aggressive. The physical and psychological changes of these treatments, a challenge at any stage of life, can be especially hard on younger women in peak fertility years, as treatments such as radiation can cause infertility and trigger early menopause.
So, if you’re under 45, should you worry about breast cancer?
We don’t want to cause anyone unnecessary worry. But we do believe that knowledge is power and the more you know about breast cancer, the causes (and what doesn’t, the symptoms are, and the screening options, the more likely women (and men) of all ages will be to catch this disease early, and until we find a cure, early diagnosis is our best tool to beat breast cancer.