Each year, only about 5% of all breast cancer cases are in women under the age of 40. It may seem like a small number and perhaps even make you think that you are “too young” to worry about the disease. But nothing could be further from the truth. Being vigilant to check your breasts every month, and knowing your risk factors for the disease can help you identify any changes early–and help raise your risk of beating it.

What are my risk factors for breast cancer?

Risk factors is a condition or behavior that raises your risk for illness or disease. In the case of breast cancer, risk factors include:

  • A mother, sister, or daughter with the disease
  • A personal history of breast cancer in the past or a high-risk lesion or mass that has been biopsied in the past
  • You have had radiation therapy in the past
  • You have the genetic mutation BRCA1/BRCA2 which raise your genetic risk for developing breast cancer

Why is treating breast cancer in younger women more challenging?

Treatment is more challenging for several reasons. First, the breast tissue in younger women is more dense. This makes it difficult to use screening tools like mammograms for younger women–we simply can’t see the lumps clearly. Younger women tend to ignore changes in their breast tissue as well. A lump or discharge may be dismissed as a cyst or other non-cancerous issue because a woman believes she’s “too young”. Some healthcare providers may, unfortunately, also follow this mindset and instead of investigating a lump, will adopt a “wait and see” approach. ┬áIf you are unhappy with your doctor’s idea to watch a lump, speak up–or find another doctor.

Young women who develop breast cancer must also face challenges with fertility, pregnancy and sexuality, as many treatments will alter their physical appearance (such as with a mastectomy to remove the breast tissue) and chemotherapy and/or radiation may cause sterility or trouble having children later.

How should young women defend themselves against breast cancer?

First and foremost, do your monthly self breast exam at home. On the first day after your period ends, take a few minutes to check your breasts and get familiar with how they feel normally. This will help you identify a change if it develops.

  • Stand in front of a mirror when you are undressed. Look at your breasts. Are they the normal shape you would expect? Look for any signs of swelling or enlargement in one breast compared to the other. Is there any drainage from the nipple? Look for any swelling or dimpling in a place where it’s never been before. It’s okay if your breasts aren’t identical. Most women’s aren’t. Use the process below to feel for any lumps:
    • Move your fingers in small circles, working from the outside of the breast (start up near your armpit) toward your nipples. Feel for any lumps or hard knots.

If you find anything out of the ordinary for your body, make an appointment with your healthcare provider right away. I know it’s tempting to just ignore a change, but your life and your health depend on prompt care. 40% of lumps are found by women just like you.