Breast cancer is often associated with older women. The latest statistics on breast cancer show that 83% of breast cancer cases occur in women over 50 years old. 1 In fact, age is a risk factor of developing breast cancer, with ones risk increasing the older they get. The rates of breast cancer increase after 40 years old and peak at 70 years old. 2
While this means that the majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer are older, it does not mean that only older women are diagnosed with breast cancer. Rates of breast cancer cases in women younger than 50 years old are low, but they exist. In 2017, it was reported that around 20% of all newly diagnosed cases of breast cancer occurred in women younger than 50 years old. 3 The rates for women under 40 are even lower, with around 5.4% of breast cancer cases occurring in women younger than 40 years old. 4
Unique Challenges of Being Younger
These low rates alone, mean that younger women who do get diagnosed with breast cancer are an underrepresented population. Unfortunately, being underrepresented is not the only challenge young women with breast cancer face. Simply being younger and diagnosed with breast cancer comes with its own host of challenges. Some of the unique challenges faced by younger women with breast cancer include, but are not limited to:
- Higher rates of psychosocial issues such as depression, anxiety, stress, body image concerns 5, 6 social isolation 6
- Pregnancy concerns and fertility issues 5
- Early menopause 5
- Sexual dysfunction and intimacy issues 5
- Financial instability from being early in their careers and/or the cost of cancer 5, 6
- Increased stress from coping with and starting an intimate relationship 6
- Caring for a younger family 6
- A survey of 547 young Canadian women diagnosed with breast cancer found that many of them had a hard time with the health-care system as well as with finding same-aged peers with breast cancer 7
Other Statistics and Facts
Younger women with breast cancer face other unique issues outside of the psychological, social, sexual, and financial challenges mentioned above. Various aspects of a breast cancer diagnosis in younger women also seems to differ from older women. This is evident from the following:
- Due to the tumour’s biology, younger women may need different ways to manage their cancer 6
- Breast cancer is the most diagnosed cancer in women 20 to 49 years old 8
- Younger women with breast cancer have lower rates of survival5
- Women younger than 40 years old die from breast cancer more than any other type of cancer5
- Younger women may ignore symptoms of breast cancer because they think they are too young to have breast cancer; Healthcare professionals may also ignore symptoms of breast cancer in younger women for the same reason 8 which may be one of the reasons why breast cancer is usually diagnosed in its later stages in younger women 5
- Breast cancer in younger women is usually more aggressive 5
- Due to have denser tissue than older women, diagnosing breast cancer in younger women with routine mammograms may not be effective 5
Resources and Self-Advocacy
Since the majority of breast cancer cases occur is women over 50 years old, many resources address this age group and are not specifically geared towards the unique challenges that younger women with breast cancer face. If you are a young woman who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, here are a few resources to get you started:
Never Too Young is CBCN’s handbook for young women with breast cancer. It deals with the psychosocial aspects of breast cancer.
PYNK is run by experienced health care professionals and young breast cancer survivors. It exists to address the clinical, psychological, research and educational needs of younger women with breast cancer.
Rethink is “the young women’s breast cancer movement”. Rethink educates, empowers and advocates for people worldwide who are affected by breast cancer through boldfaced campaigns, content, programs and resources.
Young Survival Coalition strengthens the community, addresses the unique needs, amplifies the voice and improves the quality of life of young adults affected by breast cancer, locally, nationally and internationally.
Young Adult Cancer Canada’s mission is to support young adults living with, through, and beyond cancer. Its mission is to be the connection to peers, bridge out of isolation, and source of inspiration.