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As you grow older, your chance of developing breast cancer increases. In fact, two-thirds of cases occur in women ages 55 and older. Still, younger women can develop the disease. And a recent study found that more of them-particularly those younger than 40-are being diagnosed with breast cancer that has spread throughout the body.
Using a national database of cancer statistics, researchers looked at 34 years of data on breast cancer cases. They noted a small but significant uptick in the number of women ages 25 to 39 with advanced breast cancer. Between 1976 and 2009, the percentage of such cases increased gradually from 4.4 percent to 7.2 percent.
Why the upward trend? Researchers aren't exactly sure. They suspect a number of causes. For instance, better imaging tests may be more accurately determining the extent of a woman's breast cancer. Younger women may also be dismissing early signs of the disease.
Overall, younger women are still much less likely to develop breast cancer than older women. But more cases of advanced breast cancer have researchers concerned. Such cancers are typically harder to treat. Past research has found that younger women with advanced disease are less likely to survive five years after diagnosis.
An important tool in detecting breast cancer early is a mammogram. But experts, including the American Cancer Society (ACS), don't recommend mammograms for women younger than age 40. That's partly because breast cancer among this age group is relatively uncommon. Plus, younger women tend to have denser breast tissue, making it harder to identify tumors with a mammogram.
If you are younger than age 40, you can still be vigilant about your breast health. Starting at age 20, have a regular clinical breast exam (CBE). The ACS recommends one every three years. During a CBE, your doctor will examine your breasts and your armpits for any lumps or other unusual changes.
Being familiar with your own breasts is important, too. Knowing how they normally look and feel can help you quickly notice a change-no matter how small it may be. Start a healthy habit of checking your breasts regularly.
Not all lumps or other changes mean you have breast cancer. It's also not uncommon for normal breast tissue to occasionally feel lumpy. But talk with your doctor right away if you notice any of the following:
A lump or swelling on a breast or under an arm
A breast that has changed size or shape
Fluid coming from a nipple
A change in the shape of a nipple, such as being turned inward
Red, scaly, or dimpled skin on a breast or nipple
It's also a good idea to know your risk for breast cancer. Women at higher risk-such as those with a family history of the disease-may want to consider earlier and more frequent CBEs and mammograms.
Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.
What's your risk for breast cancer? Take this assessment and share the results with your doctor.
American Cancer Society - Breast Cancer
National Cancer Institute - Breast Cancer
Susan G. Komen for the Cure - Young Women and Breast Cancer