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Breast Health Basics: What Every Woman Under 40 Should Know

By Dr. Stamatia Destounis, Elizabeth Wende Breast Care
May 16, 2024

Did you know that breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the United States, other than skin cancer? Women under 40 need to learn about breast health and why early detection is so important.

Breast Cancer Facts
  • Unexpected but Common: Most women who get breast cancer don’t have a family history of the disease. So, even if no one in your family has had it, you are still at risk.
  • Biggest Risk Factor: Just being a woman means you’re at risk. Getting older is another risk factor.
  • Genetics: Only about 5% to 10% of breast cancers are due to genes you inherit, like BRCA mutations
What to Watch For
  • Early Detection: Often, there are no signs when a tumor is small and easy to treat. That’s why regular check-ups and routine annual screening are so important.
  • Common Signs: The most common sign is a lump in your breast. Other signs to look for are skin dimpling, swelling, thickening, redness, or nipple changes like bloody or clear discharge.
  • Breast Pain: Usually, breast pain isn’t a sign of cancer and can be caused by other things.
Breast Cancer in Younger Women
  • Why you need to know: Breast cancer is not only common but also a leading cause of cancer death in women aged 20-49.
  • Aggressive Nature: In younger women, breast cancers tend to grow faster and be more serious.
Risk Factors for Young Women
  • Family History: If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, especially in young family members or a male relative with breast cancer, you might be at higher risk.
  • Genetics: If you or a close family member had ovarian cancer, or if you are of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, you might want to get tested for BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.
  • Other Risks: Prior radiation therapy, having dense breasts, and belonging to certain minority groups can also increase risk.
Factors You Can & Can Not Change
  • Can’t change: Being female, aging, having specific genes, family history, personal history of breast cancer, race, ethnicity, dense breast tissue, age at first period, older age at menopause, and previous chest radiation.
  • Might be able to change or modify:  Lifestyle choices like drinking alcohol, keeping a healthy weight, staying active, breastfeeding, using birth control, and hormone therapy.
Disparities in Breast Cancer
  • Racial Disparities: Young Black women are more likely to get breast cancer than young White women and have a 40% higher death rate.
  • Diagnosis and Staging: Minority women are more likely to be diagnosed with advanced-stage breast cancer before age 50.
Knowing Your Risk and Screening
  • Talk to Your Doctor: Discuss your breast cancer risk with your doctor by age 25, especially if you’re in a high-risk group.
  • High-Risk Screening: If your lifetime risk is over 20%, you may benefit from additional screenings.
  • Screening Guidelines:
    -Average Risk: Start yearly mammograms at age 40.
    -High Risk: If you have specific genes or prior chest radiation, begin annual mammograms and MRIs around age 30 or 25-30.
Extra Tips for Women Under 40
  • Know Your Family History: It’s crucial, especially if a close family member has or has breast cancer.
  • Understand Your Risk: Learn about the risk factors for early-onset breast cancer and consider genetic counseling if you’re at higher risk.
  • Be Proactive: Regular clinical breast exams and being vigilant about changes in your breasts can help catch issues early.
  • Healthy Lifestyle: Stay active, eat healthily, and limit alcohol intake to lower your risk.
  • Know Your History: Understanding your family’s health history can guide your screening timeline.
  • Be Aware: Knowing what’s normal for your breasts can help you spot changes.
  • Stay Active and Healthy: A healthy lifestyle is key to prevention.

Every woman’s journey with breast health is unique, so staying informed and proactive can make a big difference. Don’t hesitate to talk to your healthcare provider for concerns or questions.


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