Breast cancer doesn't always wait for menopause or middle age. In fact, thousands of women under age 40 get breast cancer every year. According to the American Cancer Society, 232,340 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women this year—and nearly 40,000 of them will die.

The Young Survivor Coalition says 13,000 of those new cancers will be in young women (under 40). Though that may seem like a small percentage of new cases, the impact it makes on those lives is significant.

Know the Risk Factors

The American Cancer Society divides risk factors into two categories.

1. Risk factors you can't change or control:

  • Gender
  • Age (About 2of 3 cases of invasive breast cancer are found in women 55 or older.)
  • Genetics (About 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer is thought to be inherited from parent to child.)
  • Family or personal history of breast or ovarian cancer (If a first-degree female relative—i.e. your sister or mother—had it, you have an increased risk of getting it, too.)
  • Race and ethnicity (White women are more likely to develop breast cancer than African American, Hispanic, or Asian women.)
  • Breast density (Women with denser breasts are 6 times more likely to develop breast cancer due to difficulty reading mammography results.)
  • Certain benign breast conditions
  • Age at first menstrual period and menopause (Menstruation beginning before the age of 12 and menopause after 55 increases your risk.)
  • Radiation to the chest or face before the age of 30
  • DES exposure (Affects women born before 1971)

2. Risk factors you can change or control:

  • The choice to have children and at what age (Women who have never had children or had their first child after the age of 30 are at higher risk of breast cancer.)
  • Use of birth control pills or other hormonal contraceptives
  • Use of specific types of hormone replacement therapy
  • Breastfeeding history (Nursing a baby for a year or more lowers your risk.)
  • Alcohol use
  • Physical activity level

Some of these factors increase your risks for developing breast cancer more significantly than others. While there's nothing you can do about risk factors in the first group, you have at least some control over risk factors in the second group. If any of these risk factors apply to you, make sure your doctor is aware and that you're being regularly screened for breast cancer.

The National Cancer Institute has developed a useful breast cancer risk assessment tool. You and your doctor can use it to help determine your individual risk of developing invasive breast cancer. Access it here.

How often should young women be screened for breast cancer?

That depends entirely on your health history, family history, and risk factors. The American Cancer Society recommends annual mammograms starting at age 40, but that's too late for young women. Instead, if you have a family or personal history of cancer or know that you have a genetic mutation for breast cancer, your doctor will need to design a personalized screening plan. Some experts recommend starting regular mammograms ten years earlier than the age at which your family member was diagnosed with cancer.

How does cancer treatment differ for young women?

Treatment for cancer itself depends on the type of cancer and whether it has spread and may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and hormone suppression therapies. All women, including those under 40 will have treatment plans that are tailored to their specific diagnosis and biopsy results. In addition, however, young women may want to consider whether fertility protection therapies like egg harvesting or embryo freezing are appropriate for them because chemotherapy and hormone suppression therapies often cause menopause and infertility.

Is breast cancer in young women worse than in older women?

Some studies indicate that breast cancers in young women might be more aggressive and difficult to treat. Other studies say that's because cancer might be diagnosed at later stages due to breast density or misdiagnosis. The good news is that breast cancer death rates are going down in all age groups thanks to better screening and treatment options.

What can young women do to prevent getting breast cancer?

Take a look at the list of risk factors you can control and talk to your doctor about family planning, choice of contraceptives and other health factors. Then, make it a priority to lead the healthiest lifestyle possible. Supporting your health by eating well, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and avoiding smoking and excess alcohol are more important than almost anything else you can do.

Heather E. Weldon, MD, OB-Gyn, reviewed this article.



American Cancer Society. Breast Cancer.

Young Survivors Coalition. Breast Cancer in Young Women.