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Over 900 young women will be diagnosed with breast cancer each year in Australia.

That’s more than two women under 40 years old each day.

Although breast cancer in young women (women under 40 years) is relatively uncommon, breast cancers in young women tend to have different characteristics and poorer survival outcomes compared to breast cancers in older women.

Risk factors for breast cancer in young women

There are factors that increase breast cancer risk in both younger and older women. This includes lifestyle factors (such as alcohol consumption, low physical activity) and reproductive factors (such as young age at first period, first birth at late age).

However, there are some risk factors that are especially important for breast cancer risk in younger women. Young women may have an increased risk of breast cancer due to factors such as:

  • Genetic susceptibility – for example, women who have inherited mutations in their BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes (or gene mutations) have a higher lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. However, not everyone who has a mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2 will develop cancer. Only a minority (about 5%-10%) of female breast cancers can be explained by inherited mutations.
  • Having Ashkenazi Jew heritage
  • Being treated with radiation therapy during childhood or early adulthood

If you are concerned that you may have an increased risk of breast cancer, please speak with your GP or local family cancer clinic, who will help you assess your risk and refer you for further genetic testing if needed. You may also be recommended other risk-reducing strategies such as keeping a healthy weight, earlier screening and risk-reducing surgeries/medications.

Early detection of breast cancer in young women

Organised breast cancer screening aims to detect breast cancers at an early stage in women. In Australia, population-based screening is performed by BreastScreen Australia and involves mammograms (an x-ray of the breast). However, routine mammographic screening is not offered to women under the age of 40, as there is currently insufficient evidence that mammography is an effective breast cancer screening strategy for this age group. Young women tend to have denser breast tissue, which makes it more difficult to distinguish normal from abnormal breast tissue on a mammogram, limiting the usefulness of mammography for screening young women.

The most effective method for early detection of breast cancer in young women is breast awareness. Cancer Australia recommends that women become aware of how their breasts normally look and feel, and to report any unusual changes (such as a new lump or pain) to their general practitioner without delay.

Breast cancer characteristics in young women

Unfortunately, young women are more likely to be diagnosed with more aggressive breast cancers, like triple-negative breast cancer. In addition, more young women (aged 20-39) are diagnosed with very large breast cancers (greater than or equal to 5 cm) than older women (8% compared to 6%). As a result, young women (aged 20-39) have a lower 5-year relative survival rates compared to women aged 40 and over.

The unique challenges faced by young women with breast cancer

Given that young women are typically busy dealing with multiple major life choices such as dating, childbearing, parenting and careers, they face a number of psycho-social challenges when diagnosed with breast cancer. These include:

  • Career issues and reduced earning potential.
  • The impact of treatment on fertility, pregnancy and early menopause.
  • Psychological concerns about the effects of treatment on a woman’s sexuality, intimacy, self-image, and self-esteem.
  • Effect of the disease on relationships (parents, family, partners and the challenges of being single) and social isolation.
  • Ongoing fear of cancer recurring.

Support services

For young women, managing a life-threatening diagnosis on top of dealing with major life events can be devastating; news of an unexpected breast cancer diagnosis may leave some women feeling anxious, overwhelmed, scared and upset.  Breast Cancer Network Australia have further resources to provide emotional and practical support for people affected by cancer, including information and personal stories about young women with breast cancer. NBCF has also compiled a report to help young women diagnosed with breast cancer.

Research into breast cancer in young women

Because of the disproportionate burden of breast cancer on young women’s lives, NBCF is continuing to fund a number of research projects related to breast cancer in young women. These projects cover a broad research spectrum – from understanding risk factors and cancer spread (metastasis), to developing an educational tool to make informed treatment choices; and improving treatment options for triple-negative breast cancer (which is more likely to affect younger women).

Learn more about our funded researchers and their projects related to breast cancer in young women below.