If you’re a woman, you know all about the pink ribbon. This symbol of breast cancer awareness, celebrated each October, is one of the most familiar health campaigns in the world.
You might even sport one yourself, from running or walking in a fundraising drive, or by donating money directly to the cause of curing breast cancer.
If someone close to you has battled the disease, the ribbon takes on even greater significance. It’s a sign of solidarity to every other woman, and their loved ones, that has gone through it, too.
And you likely do know someone: 1 in 8 women will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in her lifetime.
But if you’re under 40, you may not think you’re at risk.
You may believe that only older women are vulnerable. The incidence of breast cancer does rise as you age, particularly after menopause. Only 11 percent of breast cancer diagnoses are in women under age 45, and less than 5 percent under age 35.
Yet while the chance of developing breast cancer when you’re young isn’t common, it’s not zero. More than 12,000 cases of breast cancer in women under 40 are diagnosed each year, accounting for more than 40 percent of all cancer diagnoses in women in the same age group.
And a 2013 study found that rates of advanced breast cancer among women under 40 is increasing.
As actress Christina Applegate (diagnosed at 36), National Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation founder Janelle Hail (34), television journalist and host Hoda Kotb (43), and TikTok star Eliza Petersen (diagnosed at 19), know, breast cancer doesn’t discriminate.
More troubling is that when breast cancer occurs in younger women, it’s often more aggressive and more advanced.
The make-up of breast tissue in younger women is more dense, making it more difficult to detect lumps or other abnormalities. Younger women are also less likely to be regularly screened for breast cancer or to do self-examinations.
These aggressive, later-stage diagnoses make treatment more difficult. Tragically the mortality rate for a woman diagnosed with breast cancer before age 40 is 30 percent higher than for a woman diagnosed between 51 and 60.
“Although a diagnosis of breast cancer is distressing at any age, this occurrence in young women is fraught with several unique challenges,” wrote the authors of “Breast Cancer Before Age 40 Years,” published in Seminars in Oncology.
Here’s what you should know about breast cancer risk no matter how old you are.
First, what exactly is breast cancer?
Cancer refers to the overgrowth of abnormal cells in an area of the body that can spread into the surrounding tissue. Usually cells form and divide only when needed by the body for specific functions. Cancer cells grow and divide on their own, and don’t stop, creating masses and disrupting normal cell production.
Breast cancer occurs when cells in the lobes, ducts or connective tissue of the breast begin to grow and multiply abnormally. These cells are also invasive, moving beyond the location of their formation into other areas of the breast or nearby lymph nodes.
When cancer has moved beyond the breast and lymph to other parts of the body, it’s called metastatic. This is considered an advanced stage of breast cancer.
Benign breast conditions are when cells accumulate and bind together in the breast but do not spread.
What causes breast cancer?
Unfortunately, no one really knows. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, it’s difficult to predict why one woman will develop cancer and another won’t. The common denominator of all breast cancer, however, is damage to a cell’s DNA, causing it to multiply abnormally. And while the exact conditions for this damage may never be known, scientists believe that lifestyle, environmental, and genetic factors all may play a role.
What do we know about risks of developing breast cancer?
The largest known risk factor of developing breast cancer at any age, is a family history of the disease. If your mother, grandmother, or other female members of your family had it, you are at higher risk yourself. You may also be at increased risk if a family member had ovarian cancer, male breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, or metastatic prostate cancer.
Other factors that put you in a high-risk category for breast cancer include:
Dense breast tissue: Women with more connective tissue than fatty tissue in their breasts have a higher risk of developing breast cancer. This dense tissue also makes it more difficult to spot potential cancer growth through mammogram.
Radiation therapy: Previous medical treatment requiring radiation, particularly of the chest, puts a woman at higher risk of developing breast cancer later on. A recent study found that risk is greater among Black and Hispanic women who receive radiation treatment for other cancers as adolescents or young adults.
Inherited genetic mutations: In 2013 actress Angelina Jolie underwent a double mastectomy (removal of both breasts) after genetic testing revealed mutation of the BRCA1 gene. If breast cancer runs in your family, your doctor will likely encourage you to take a genetic test.
Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry: 1 in 40 women with this heritage carry genetic mutations that can cause breast cancer.
Early periods: Women who start their menstrual cycle before age 12 are often at higher risk. The risk increases if she begins menopause after age 55. This may be due to longer hormonal exposure.
Aging: Even without any other risk factors in play, a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer rises after age 55.
Many factors that increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer are things you have little, if any, control over.
However there are other factors that you can control. Things like:
Maintaining a healthy body weight: Obesity is a known risk factor for breast cancer. Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight is a key recommendation for staying healthy overall, and particularly if you have another risk factor for breast cancer.
Getting regular exercise: In addition to its role in maintaining a healthy weight, regular exercise boosts immunity.
Not smoking: Smoking is a preventable risk for all cancers. A 2012 study found that it was also a contributing risk specifically for breast cancer.
Limiting how much you drink: Studies show that a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer increases with alcohol consumption. Women who drink 3 alcoholic drinks per week, for example, have a 15 percent higher chance of developing breast cancer. That risk increases by as much as 10 percent with each additional drink. Alcohol is known to increase estrogen levels and other hormones in a woman’s body, and can damage cell DNA.
Working the night shift: Hormonal changes due to night-shift roles also may increase breast cancer risk.
When or if you get pregnant may not be under your control, but statistics show that women who have children over 30 and who don’t breastfeed, are at higher risk of developing breast cancer.
Around the world, women are more aware about breast cancer than ever before. There are also far more options for treatment, especially with early detection.
But it’s still up to each one of us to educate ourselves about our own personal health risks—and to be proactive in reducing them at every turn.
Check out the following resources for more information about breast cancer and reducing your risk:
American Cancer Society: https://www.cancer.org/
National Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation: https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/educational-guides/
Centers for Disease Control’s Bring Your Brave Campaign: https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/young_women/bringyourbrave
Young Survival Coalition: https://www.youngsurvival.org/learn/about-breast-cancer
Sign up with Sahoja, and lets “spread goodness” because we are stronger when we are together.