How Are Young Women Affected by Breast Cancer?

While most women who develop breast cancer are older, breast cancer can occur in younger women. About 11 percent of all invasive breast cancers are diagnosed in women under the age of 45. Plus, breast cancer is the most often diagnosed cancer in young adults.1

Age is the biggest risk factor in developing breast cancer, and a woman’s risk of breast cancer increases as she ages. However, age is only 1 risk factor. Other factors often play a role when breast cancer is diagnosed in younger women, such as genetic mutations like BRCA1 and BRCA2.2

When breast cancer occurs in a young woman, it is more common for there to be a family history of breast cancer. Because of this, young women with breast cancer may want to get genetic screening.3

In a study of women under the age of 30 with breast cancer, about half who had family histories of breast cancer had genetic mutations in BRCA1, BRCA2, or TP53. Fewer than 10 percent of the women without a family history of breast cancer had these genetic mutations. If a woman tests positive for genetic mutations, they may want to consider preventive measures to reduce the chance of future cancers. These measures may include taking certain medicines or having preventive surgery.4-6

Risk factors

Risk factors are identified features that may increase a person’s chance of developing a disease. However, risk factors do not necessarily cause breast cancer. Young women are more likely to develop breast cancer if they have4:

  • A family history of breast cancer
  • Genetic mutations, such as BRCA1, BRCA2, and/or TP53
  • Previous radiation therapy to the chest, such as for Hodgkin lymphoma treatment
  • Started menstruating at an early age (before age 12)
  • Recently used oral contraceptives
  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • High intake of red meat

Unique challenges of breast cancer in young women

Learning about a breast cancer diagnosis is distressing at any age. However, when breast cancer occurs in young women, there are additional challenges. This includes things like:4

  • Mental and emotional challenges
  • Fertility concerns
  • The potential that treatment may cause premature menopause

More aggressive cancers and higher mortality rates in young women

Generally, breast cancers in younger women tend to be:4

  • Larger tumors
  • More aggressive cancers
  • More likely to have lymph node involvement

Breast cancer tumors in young women, especially in young Black women, are more likely to be "triple negative." This is a type of breast cancer that is hormone receptor-negative (estrogen receptor-negative and progesterone receptor-negative) and HER2 negative.4

One research study found that 56 percent of Black women and 42 percent of white women with breast cancer ages 20 to 34 had triple-negative breast cancer. Triple-negative breast cancers are more challenging to treat. This is because there are currently no targeted therapies for this type of breast cancer and hormone therapies are not effective for them. However, there are other available treatments.4

Treatment for young women with breast cancer

Treatment options for young women with breast cancer are based on each person's type of breast cancer and the tumor's features, such as whether it is hormone receptor-positive or HER2 positive. Treatment may include:3

Some treatments, like some forms of chemotherapy or hormone therapy, may cause a young woman to go into premature menopause. Young women should talk to their doctor about their treatment and fertility options.3,4

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Written by: Emily Downward | Last reviewed: March 2021