Is breast cancer on the rise in young women?

Young womanIt is uncommon for a young woman to be diagnosed with breast cancer.  But a new study has found that it is becoming increasingly less uncommon than it used to be. According to research conducted by researchers at the Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology program at Seattle Children’s Hospital, the rate of advanced breast cancer has almost doubled for young women in the U.S. over the last three decades.  And nobody seems to know why.

The study, which was published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at data from the U.S. Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results, or SEER database.  Researchers found that in 1976, 1.53 out of every 100,000 American women 25 to 39 years old was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer.  But by 2009, that rate had almost doubled to 2.9 per 100,000 women for the same age group.

Breast cancer in young women is still considered rare.  Currently, about 7 percent of all breast cancers cases in the United States are diagnosed in women under 40.  But researchers warn that it is a trend that requires more research.  Because even though breast cancer is rare for young women, it also tends to be more aggressive.  Thus, survival rates for young women with advanced – or metastatic – breast cancer are much lower than they are for older women.

At this point, researchers don’t want to scare young women into thinking that their risk for breast cancer is high – because it’s not.  But they do want to make sure that young women know that breast cancer can and does happen to young women, too.  So it’s important for women of all ages to get in the habit of performing monthly self breast exams.  And it’s also important for health care providers to be aware of the trend so that they can spot cases earlier in their young patients.

Now that researchers have found this trend in the U.S., they’re hoping that other countries will undertake similar studies so that they can determine if the trend is worldwide, or if it is isolated to the U.S.  And then they need to figure out why.