Breast cancer hasn’t been chiefly associated with older women for quite some time. Even I was diagnosed young (in my 30s) more than 20 years ago. With no known risk factors or family history, my diagnosis was considered a bit of an oddity due to my young age. But today I would by no means be alone as someone diagnosed that young.
New research has provided some worrisome news—the incidence of young women (defined as being from ages 25 to 39 years) developing advanced breast cancer is on the rise. On average, the individual risk for a woman to develop breast cancer today by age 40 is 1 in 173 (based on 2008 statistics). And yet, when I was first diagnosed in 1992, the risk for my age group was 1 in 842.
At younger ages, and more deadly
So clearly we are seeing younger women joining the ranks among the nearly 300,000 women who are diagnosed each year. What may be even more worrisome is that the mortality rates are higher for younger women than for older women too. This means women are forced to leave behind young children or lose the opportunity to even have a family or, for that matter, get married.
Based on the research published in the February 27, 2012, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, this higher mortality rate isn’t related to race or ethnicity. For all women with breast cancer (all ages) today, the average survival rate is 87 percent when the disease is locoregional (that is, limited to a localized area of the breast and lymph nodes under the arm). But for younger women, this percentage is only 31 percent, based on incidence, prevalence, and survival data collected by the U.S. government. Needless to say, these figures are very troubling to see.
Over the last few years, the organization Mothers Supporting Daughters with Breast Cancer has also been experiencing an increase in the volume of mothers contacting them for support because their young daughters have been diagnosed with locally advanced and/or metastatic breast cancer.
So what are the solutions? Early diagnosis may not be the solution for young women. Treatments targeted to the specific prognostic features of their tumors, however, are needed.
With 70 percent of all women diagnosed having no known risk factors, there are clearly additional risk factors too, which science hasn’t figured out and identified yet, but needs to.