Breast cancer is known to strike at any age, but is rare among young women. Only 7% of women below the age of 40 have breast cancer, and the risk increases with age. In fact, 50% of women who have had cancer were 61 years or less.
However, compared to older women, breast cancers among the young are associated with larger (median size=2 cm vs. 1.5 cm), more aggressive (mostly involves lymph nodes) and advanced (less well differentiated) tumors, higher mortality, shorter disease-free survival, higher rate of recurrence and have greater chances of having a mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.
Young women usually have a first degree relative also affected with breast or ovarian cancer or have other risk factors that would lead to the genetic mutations. They are at an increased risk infecting the other breast also and of developing ovarian cancer.
Breast cancer diagnosis in young women suffers the most because they feel that they are too young to develop cancer, and undergo screening only if they think they are at a risk or face symptoms. Imaging tests are also discouraged by many doctors as they do not feel the need to expose a young patient to unnecessary radiations. In contrast, diagnosis is more frequent among older women with the establishment of population-based mammographic screening programs for the over 50 age group.
Diagnosis is more difficult because of the denser breast tissue of young women. Clinical examination and mammography are not very sensitive, because of which early signs of a breast lump are often ignored and dismissed as cysts, while the patient is advised to wait and watch. By the time a lump can be felt, the cancer is often already advanced. Young women don’t show typical mammographic features.
Ultrasound is more sensitive and has the ability to differentiate solid masses from cysts. However, there are cases of benign sonographic features being identified for malignant lesions. Therefore, a combination of mammography, ultrasound and biopsy is recommended for maximum imaging accuracy.
Treatment of breast cancer remains the same regardless of age. Depending on the extent of the disease, lumpectomy or mastectomy can be carried out. Radiation therapy, chemotherapy and/or hormone therapy usually follow surgery to ensure complete destruction of residual cancer cells and prevent recurrence. This can be followed by immediate or delayed reconstruction of the resected breast.
Breast cancer treatment in young women may be associated with the following complications:
Special Considerations for Young Women with Breast Cancer
There are certain factors, like sexuality, body image, fertility, contraception, pregnancy, familial and genetic issues, career and finances, that need to be considered in women below 40 developing breast cancer.
Breast Cancer during Pregnancy
Late pregnancies may lead to breast cancer. With the current trend of women putting off pregnancy to a much later age, the risks of breast cancer are increasing. The cancer can even occur during pregnancy owing to the hormonal changes that take place in a woman’s body.
Diagnosis during pregnancy is even more difficult due to changes such as enlarged breasts and development of milk ducts. Late diagnosis results in larger and more advanced cancer by the time it is detected. Mammography, ultrasound and biopsies can be carried out with extreme care to minimize any risk to the growing baby.
The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), consisting of 19 leading cancer organizations across the US, has established guidelines for treating breast cancer during pregnancy. Treatment depends on the stage of gestation when the cancer is detected.
Pregnancy after Breast Cancer
Breast cancer can lower the fertility of a woman so she may find it difficult to get pregnant. However, the affect that the hormonal changes of pregnancy have on breast cancer is not the same for a recurrence after treatment. Some oncologists suggest a 2-year window period for recurrence and recommend delaying pregnancy for that period. If the breast cancer is hormone receptor-positive, women are advised not to get pregnant until they stop the medication that may affect the fetus. Breastfeeding will be restricted to only the healthy breast as the cancer treated breast will not be able to produce milk.
Breast cancer in young women, although rare, harbors aggressive clinical features and needs to be managed with care. Apart from gaining information on the details of the procedure, your doctor should also brief you on the following:
As a young women suffering from breast cancer, you may be extremely concerned about sexuality, body image and most importantly how treatment would affect your future and family life. You may feel overwhelmed when diagnosed with breast cancer during pregnancy. Your doctor would have to be sensitive to the specific issues and concerns of the treatment affecting your unborn child. You should consider visiting a surgeon who works with fertility specialists, plastic surgeons and geneticists so that all stages of your recuperation is managed seamlessly. When choosing your treatment, you should try to draw a balance between cure and survival, and the effects on your quality of life.