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Young Women and Breast Cancer

Understanding hereditary and genetic risk factors

Stephanie Green

On January 9, 2011, Stephanie Green, a Miami-based blogger and writer lost her battle against breast cancer at the young age of 35. Stephanie left behind her blog, a book in the works and numerous other articles and stories that touched thousands of her fans. Stephanie fought to the very end, often using her writing as a way to cope with the disease.  A long-time contributor to HEEB magazine, Stephanie was Ashkenazi Jewish and BRCA1 positive. Ashkenazi Jewish women have a one in 40 chance of inheriting the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation. These genes are important in the development of breast cancer. Women with the mutation have up to an 85 percent chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. Why do young women get breast cancer? When referring to a breast cancer diagnosis, “young” typically means anyone under 40 years old because breast cancer is relatively uncommon among women in this age group. In the U.S., about 5 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses occur in women under age 40. Of the women who are diagnosed at a younger age many, like Stephanie, have a mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. If a woman carries a defective BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, she may have a 30 to 85 percent chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime, according to the National Cancer Institute. Having an immediate family member who has or had breast cancer also increases the risk of developing breast cancer in young women. So although young women generally have a much lower risk of developing breast cancer, the risk is high for women who have the gene mutation or have family history. Advice for all young women Clinical breast exams are recommended for all women at least every three years, starting at age 20, and every year for women age 40 or over. If you are under 40, and have a family history or other known risk factors, talk with your health care provider to assess your risk, and determine a personalized plan of when to start having mammograms or other imaging tests. Diagnosing breast cancer in young women can be harder because of the density of a young woman’s breast tissue. By the time a lump can be felt in a young woman, it is often large enough and advanced enough to lower her chances of survival. In addition, the cancer may be more aggressive and less responsive to hormone therapies. If you are concerned about a genetic risk, you can ask for a referral to a genetic counselor who can provide genetic testing, screening tests, like MRI, or risk reduction options that might be right for you. In addition to talking with your doctor about your risk, it is equally important to know how your breasts normally look and feel. See your health care provider right away if you notice any of these breast changes: • Lump, hard knot or thickening • Swelling, warmth, redness or darkening • Change in the size or shape of the breast • Dimpling or puckering of the skin • Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple • Pulling in of your nipple or other parts of the breast • Nipple discharge that starts suddenly • New pain in one spot that doesn’t go away Awareness and early detection are two of the most important tools we have to fight breast cancer. For more information on breast self-awareness, visit www.flbreasthealth.com for an online beast health tutorial.