Nearly 800 young women will be diagnosed with breast cancer each year in Australia – that is more than two women under 40 years old each day.
Because it’s relatively uncommon, symptoms of breast cancer in young women – such as a lump or breast pain – can often be ignored or dismissed. Routine mammographic screening is not offered to women under the age of 40, as the evidence shows it is not effective in this group. That’s because younger women have denser breast tissue which shows up on mammograms as white, indistinguishable from tumours which also show up as white.
Because breast cancer is not as common among this age group, receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer comes as a huge shock to young women as well as their family and friends.
Breast cancer puts an utterly disproportionate burden of impact on the lives of young women. It hits them during their childrearing and raising years, affects their ability to work and earn an income.
Young women are typically diagnosed with more aggressive breast cancers than older women, and are at higher risk of the cancer spreading to other parts of the body. They have a higher chance of the breast cancer returning and are more likely to die from the disease than older women diagnosed with breast cancer, regardless of the stage of the cancer.
Because young women are commonly diagnosed with more aggressive breast cancers, their treatment is often more aggressive. These treatments can result in physical and psychological changes that can affect their future and quality of life. For example, treatment for breast cancer usually includes radiation therapy which causes permanent damage eggs stored in the ovaries, leading to infertility and triggering early menopause.
As such, young women’s needs are very different to older women. A key issue is the dearth of material for young women seeking information on how the disease affects them, and their experience can be shaped by their GP’s reaction to their concerns.
NBCF champions the cause of young women
In 2014, NCBF compiled a report, Not Just an Older Woman’s Disease: Breast Cancer in your 20s and 30s, to highlight the disproportionate burden they face when diagnosed.
NBCF has partnered with the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) with the aim of improving the level of information at the original point of contact –GPs – so that breast cancer may be detected earlier when treatment options are most effective and useful advice is on offer for worried young women.
NBCF also funds critical research focused on breast cancer in young women.
How is NBCF-funded research helping?
Drawing on the knowledge that women who have had children are at a lower risk of developing breast cancer, Dr Kara Britt is currently investigating a protein that is increased in the breast tissue of women who have borne children. Dr Britt’s goal is to replicate this protective effect as a treatment for those at high risk and to create a targeted breast cancer treatment that does not bear the same side effects as Tamoxifen which can cause severe responses in some women. If successful, this research could improve the treatment options and quality of life for young women and drastically reduce deaths from breast cancer in the future.
Young women with breast cancer wishing to have children find that chemotherapy impacts their fertility. Dr Karla Hutt from the Hudson Institute in Melbourne is investigating the impact of various types of chemotherapy on samples of ovarian tissue. Dr Hutt is determined to find new ways of preserving the fertility of young women with breast cancer, and in a recent discovery her team found that blocking the production of a particular protein could prevent infertility caused by radiation therapy.