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5 Things Women Under 40 Should Know About Breast Cancer

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A breast cancer diagnosis can be shocking news for a young woman to hear, especially since it’s so rare. Confusion over what to do next can make it that much more difficult.

“Breast cancer in young women can have its own risk factors and traits, and young women have their own considerations when deciding on a treatment,” says Nadine Tung, MD, head of breast medical oncology and cancer genetics at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC). “At the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Program at BIDMC, we help women navigate these difficult decisions.”

Here’s what Dr. Tung says are the five most important things women under 40 should know to give themselves the best chance of fighting back against breast cancer.

Know Your Breasts

A lump is not the only sign of possible breast cancer. Although these don’t always indicate breast cancer, some other signs to watch for include discharge coming from the nipple or an inverted nipple. “Younger women who have breast cancer may ignore the warning signs because they believe they are too young to get breast cancer,” says Dr. Tung. “Call your doctor immediately if you find a lump or experience any other changes in your breast.”

Know Your Family History

In younger women, breast cancer is more likely to result from genetics. If you’re 45 or younger and have been diagnosed with breast cancer, consider genetic testing to determine if you’ve inherited a cancer-causing gene, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2. Many genes that increase your breast cancer risk can be identified through a blood test.

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Know Other Risk Factors

Family history is not the only risk factor for breast cancer in younger women. Others include:

  • Previous high-dose radiation to the chest
  • Early onset of menstrual periods (before age 12)
  • Late age pregnancy or no previous pregnancy
  • Dense breasts on mammogram
  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • Obesity
  • Sedentary lifestyle

Know How to Find the Right Doctor

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s important to find the right healthcare team to work with you. You may see several different types of oncologists (cancer specialists), including medical, surgical, and radiation oncologists. Your healthcare team should be experienced with all the new treatments and approaches including genetics, neoadjuvant therapy (chemotherapy before surgery), and immunotherapy.

“New therapies that fight cancer using a person’s own immune system (immunotherapy) are particularly effective to treat triple-negative breast cancer, which is a type of cancer more often found in younger women,” says Dr. Tung.

Know It’s OK to Ask Questions

Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis is overwhelming at any age. For younger women, there may be some unique challenges to consider, including fertility or other areas of reproductive health.

“Ask questions,” encourages Dr. Tung. “You should be an active participant in your care. Your healthcare team should explain to you any medical terms you do not understand, explain your treatment choices, possible side effects, and expected outcome.”

To learn more about breast cancer services available at BIDMC, visit bidmc.org.