Young Women & Breast Cancer: What You Need To Know
Young Women & Breast Cancer: What You Need To Know
October is breast cancer awareness month and while most older women are aware that they must stay on top of their mammograms and checkups, many young women don’t even consider breast cancer as a possible threat to our bodies. Breast cancer, as we know it, is something that only happens to women over 50. Or does it? The truth is, breast cancer happens to women at all ages. It’s not just an “older” woman disease and this is something many young women aren’t educated about. We aren’t told it can happen to us because, although it’s rare for young women without predispositions, if you have hormonal imbalance (especially excess estrogen), a family history of breast cancer, and dense breast tissue, you are, in fact, at a much higher risk of developing breast cancer at any age. Knowing if we’re estrogen dominant, knowing our family history, and knowing our breast density is something we should be aware of at a young age, so we can be on alert for any changes in our breasts. And while doctors may dismiss our concerns, we women have to be our own advocates, because the facts don’t lie:
One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.
About 1 out of 8 invasive breast cancers are found in women younger than 45.
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women.
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death among women.
Each year it is estimated that over 220,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer and more than 40,000 will die.
About 5% to 10% of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary, meaning that they result directly from gene defects (called mutations) inherited from a parent.
Having one first-degree relative (mother, sister, or daughter) with breast cancer approximately doubles a woman’s risk. Having 2 first-degree relatives increases her risk about 3-fold.
Women with dense breasts on mammogram have a risk of breast cancer that is 1.2 to 2 times that of women with average breast density. Unfortunately, dense breast tissue can also make mammograms less accurate.
So, let’s break down the a few major risk factors for getting breast cancer at an early age: dense breast tissue, family history, and hormonal imbalance/estrogen dominance. These three factors can significantly increase your chances of getting breast cancer at any age, so it’s important that 1. you know if you have any of these predispositions and 2. that if you do, you get regular checkups at the doctor and do regular self breast exams.
Dense Breast Tissue
What is dense breast tissue?
Here’s the explanation from the American Cancer. (We recommend you read the full report here.)
“Breasts are made up of a mixture of lobules, ducts, and fatty and fibrous connective tissue. Lobules produce milk, and ducts are the tiny tubes that carry milk from the lobules to the nipple. The breast lobules are sometimes called glandular tissue because they produce milk. The fibrous connective tissue and the fatty tissue give breasts their size and shape and hold the glandular tissue in place. Your breasts are considered dense if you have a lot of fibrous or glandular tissue but not much fatty tissue. Some women have more dense breast tissue than others for reasons we do not clearly understand. For most women, breast density decreases with age. But in some women, there is little change. Breast density is very common in many women, and it is not abnormal.”
Why is it important that you know if you have dense breast tissue?
Dense breast tissue is most common in young women and can make it difficult to discover breast cancer on mammograms. Because both cancer and dense breast tissue shows up as white on mammograms, it can make it hard for doctors to see or diagnose cancer hidden within the dense tissue. This is why it’s so important to do self-exams and keep an eye out for any lumps. If you discover a lump and know you have dense breasts, demand an ultrasound for further diagnosis. Ultrasounds will be able to tell if a lump is solid (possibly cancerous) or fluid filled (likely a benign cyst). If you have a lump, it doesn’t matter how young you are, get it checked immediately. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
Genetic Risks & Family History
Two genetic factors put you at higher risk for breast cancer at a younger age: family history (most notably a first degree blood relative; sister, daughter, mother with a history of breast cancer) and the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutation. Here’s an explanation via Cancer.org:
BRCA1 and BRCA2
“The most common cause of hereditary breast cancer is an inherited mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. In normal cells, these genes help prevent cancer by making proteins that keep the cells from growing abnormally. If you have inherited a mutated copy of either gene from a parent, you have a high risk of developing breast cancer during your lifetime.
Although in some families with BRCA1 mutations the lifetime risk of breast cancer is as high as 80%, on average this risk seems to be in the range of 55 to 65%. For BRCA2 mutations the risk is lower, around 45%.
Breast cancers linked to these mutations occur more often in younger women and more often affect both breasts than cancers not linked to these mutations. Women with these inherited mutations also have an increased risk for developing other cancers, particularly ovarian cancer.”
Breast cancer risk is higher among women whose close blood relatives have this disease.”
First Degree Relative
“Having one first-degree relative (mother, sister, or daughter) with breast cancer approximately doubles a woman’s risk. Having 2 first-degree relatives increases her risk about 3-fold.
The exact risk is not known, but women with a family history of breast cancer in a father or brother also have an increased risk of breast cancer. Altogether, less than 15% of women with breast cancer have a family member with this disease. This means that most (over 85%) women who get breast cancer do not have a family history of this disease.”
Estrogen dominance is when your body has more estrogen than progesterone. Our bodies need a balance of these hormones to function properly. Unopposed estrogen leads to a myriad of health issues including severe PMS, weight gain, infertility, endometriosis and breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer.
Here’s an explanation of how our hormones work via WomentoWomen:
“Estrogen and progesterone are two of the primary female sex hormones. During a normal menstrual cycle, they take turns driving the process of maturing and releasing an egg and preparing the uterus for possible pregnancy: estrogen rises in the first half of the cycle, peaks at ovulation, then falls in the second half as progesterone rises. Progesterone is released by the rupturing of the egg follicle during ovulation. Testosterone too is secreted in “surges” around the time of ovulation, perhaps as Mother Nature’s way to increase our interest in sex, and again before menses. If there is no pregnancy, you have a period and the whole cycle begins again.
When estrogen, progesterone and testosterone are doing their jobs, they work well together. How much or how little of each hormone is made at any one time relies on a complicated feedback system between the brain: specifically the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, which release LH (luteinizing hormone) and FSH (follicle stimulating hormone), the ovaries, and the adrenal glands. Stress and diet affect that feedback system and so directly impact your hormonal balance.”
Be Your Own Advocate
Breast cancer happens at all ages. Please do not let someone tell you you’re “too young” to be at risk. Every woman is at risk. Even though 80% of lumps turn out to be benign, you can never be too careful. We recommend you read Cancer.org’s entire article on breast cancer and risk factors. Being diligent and aware of your breast health and risks can save your life.
Be Proactive. Get yearly checkups, do monthly self-exams (here’s a guide on how to do your own exams), and pay attention to any changes in your breasts including nipple discharge, breast pain, lumps, change in shape or size, inverted nipples, rashes or “orange peel” looking breast skin, lumps in your armpit, thickening of the breast or armpit tissue. Here is a full list of breast cancer symptoms. Get tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic mutations, get blood work done to test your hormone levels, and get proper treatment if you find you do have a hormonal imbalance –especially if you have excess estrogen.
Be your own advocate and never let a doctor brush you off when you feel something is wrong!