More women ages 24-39 are being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, a new study released in The Journal of the American Medical Association reports. The study found that from 1976-2009, the incidence of advanced breast cancer in this age group increased 2.1 % per year. The reason for this slow rise? The researchers aren’t sure but suspect that the rise may be due to genetics, smoking, alcohol intake, or obesity.
This news is disturbing to me as a woman, as a mother, and as a pediatrician. I have watched the age at which physicians are told to start doing routine screening mammograms rise. Some physicians’ groups advocate changing the current age of 40 to begin screening mammograms to age 50. With the new evidence that this study illuminates, this makes me personally uncomfortable.
According to the JAMA study, the current incidence of metastatic breast cancer in women 24-39 rose from 1.5 to 2.9 per 100,000 women during the span of time from 1973-2009. The American Cancer Research Institute cites that one in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. This show us that the fact remains that breast cancer is much more common in older women than in younger women.
As a pediatrician, I teach the young women in my practice to begin self breast exams at age 17. I want them to get comfortable examining their breast tissue and learn what it feels like. For many women and young girls, breast exams can be tricky. If a woman has fibrocystic disease or particularly fibrous breast tissue, feeling an abnormality can be difficult. Many girls say that all of their breast tissue feels lumpy. If these young women start their breast exams early, they become so familiar with their own tissue, that they can more easily identify an abnormality. Ideally, they should do breast exams once per month around the time of their menstrual cycle.
Doing routine breast exams is extremely important for women from 24-39 because they will not get routine mammograms. If, however, they feel anything out of the ordinary, they should go to their physician right away and he or she will order a mammogram or ultrasound to look more closely at the tissue. If a woman fails to do breast exams, she can easily miss a mass and finding a cancer early can literally save her life.
So if you have a teenage or young adult daughter, encourage her to do a few things to help her guard against breast cancer.
- Teach her to do self breast exams while she is in her late teens. Encourage her to continue them every month, even if she feels that she isn’t good at them (many young girls feel this way). Tell her that over time, she will become very familiar with her own breast tissue.
- If she has a family history of breast cancer (particularly on her mother’s side), have her talk with her physician about it.
- If she feels anything abnormal in her breasts, tell her to call her doctor right away. If she is certain that she feels a lump and her doctor doesn’t take her concern seriously, have her get a second opinion.
- Encourage her not to smoke, keep her alcohol intake at a reasonable amount, and maintain a healthy weight. You can read about certain foods that help prevent breast cancer at the American Institute for Cancer Research’s website here.
- Encourage her to stay physically active. We know that regular exercise and good physical fitness can help women avoid getting breast cancer.
I believe that we shouldn’t be afraid of getting cancer but that we should be wise and well informed. Believe it or not, almost one third of breast cancers can be avoided. Help your daughter be in that group.