Monitoring breast health early and often can be challenging for younger patients with packed schedules and competing priorities. Women of average risk typically begin annual mammography screening at age 40, but women at high risk warrant earlier screening. That’s why guidelines issued by the National Comprehensive Cancer Networkadvise all women to get breast cancer risk assessments every 1-3 years, starting at age 25. High risk women should start screening mammography before their average risk peers.
What is Different About Breast Cancer In Younger Women?
Though women under 45 account for only about 10% of new breast cancer cases, these cancers result in higher mortality rates. This is because breast cancers in younger women tend to be more aggressive and harder to treat. At the same time, healthcare providers and patients alike are more inclined to dismiss early warning signs in this age group, employing a “wait-and-see” approach. Every year, more than 1,000 women under 40 die as a result of breast cancer.
Early awareness and detection can protect high-risk young women from potentially life-threatening illness. Clinicians play a crucial role by identifying high-risk patients at an early age. Educating patients about the risk factors for early breast cancer– and stressing the importance of regular screening for those who are at elevated risk– is an important step toward identifying aggressive cancers earlier, when intervention is most effective.
Risk Factors for Women Under 40
In addition to the risks that all women face, certain risk factors elevate younger women’s likelihood of developing breast cancer at an early age. These include:
- Close relatives who have experienced breast cancer before age 45, or who have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer at any age
- Mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes
- Ashkenazi Jewish heritage (which may contribute to the above gene mutation risk)
- Radiation therapy to the breast or chest area in childhood or early adulthood
Early Intervention and Life-Saving Care
Understanding one’s elevated risk at an early age can help patients to implement healthier habits, including routine screening mammography. Performing regular risk assessments starting at age 25 can help get high risk women screened at the right time.