It seems that there are a lot more young women who are being diagnosed with an advanced type of breast cancer, compared to about 30 years ago. While the overall rate of cancer still remains low for this age group, a new breast cancer clinical study has shed some light on a potential issue.
Medical researchers now say that one out of every 173 women will develop breast cancer before she reaches 40. Too make matters worse, the prognosis is often worse for younger patients who are diagnosed with breast cancer.
The Rate of Breast Cancer among Younger Women
In this new clinical study, a research team led by Dr. Rebecca Johnson was able to establish that the rate of breast cancer (metastatic breast cancer most especially) among younger women had increased by nearly two percent every year between 1976 and 2009.
Johnson was quoted as saying, “We think that the likelihood is that since this change has been so marked over just a couple of decades, that it’s something external, a modifiable lifestyle-related risk factor or perhaps an environmental toxic exposure, but we don’t know what.”
So What has been Causing this Rising Breast Cancer Rate
There are a number of possibilities that researchers believe could offer some explanation for this increase in early-life metastatic breast cancer rates. For one, there could be more people that are eating poorly and/or are not getting regular exercise. On the other hand, it could be a side effect of more women using hormonal birth control nowadays. In either case, Johnson and her colleagues are attempting to get funding for further research into the effects that excess exposure to hormones could be having on the population.
During this breast cancer clinical trial, the research team was given access to the cancer registries that are kept by the National Cancer Institute. Unsurprisingly, they discovered that the number of women (middle-aged through older patients)being diagnosed with breast cancer at an earlier stage had also increased over this time period, most likely due to improvements in screening methods and diagnostic testing.
Metastatic Breast Cancer
They only other alteration in cancer incidence that could be identified was in younger female patients, all between the ages of 25 and 39. Among this age group, the number of women who were being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer had grown steadily from one in 65,000 in 1976 to one in 34,000 in 2009.
Further analysis showed that most of this growth appeared to come from cancers that were sensitive to estrogen. This at least was somewhat fortunate, since those types of cancers tend to be a little more responsive to treatment and have a better prognosis overall. However, metastatic breast cancer is still the most deadly kind out there (with less than a third of those diagnosed surviving the first five years after diagnosis).
Family Medical Histories of these Women
The results of this clinical study have received some criticism since they were released. Dr. Julie Margenthaler, a surgeon who has spent significant time studying this disease in younger patients at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has claimed that these results are lacking given the limited data obtained on the family medical histories of these women. In particular, she noted that identifying women who were carriers of BRCA gene mutations should have been one of the research team’s top priorities, since those carriers run a much more significant risk of developing breast cancer at a younger age.
Johnson, on the other hand, believes that these results should not be causing women to become more alarmed, as the overall rate of cancer is still quite low for younger women. Instead, she only hopes to promote further research into this subject. “We’re certainly not advocating any changes in screening mammography practices. This is an increase, but it’s small on a population level,” she reported. “There’s no reason that because you’re 35 and see this report, you need to go out and get a mammogram right away.”
Be Mindful of the Risk of Cancer
On that subject, Margenthaler agreed with the researcher’s assessment. “A small statistical change does not translate into changing practice patterns,” she told interviewers. “It doesn’t mean we can base major treatment or decision-making changes on this alone. Overall, it’s a pretty small absolute change.”
Johnson believes that women need to be mindful of the potential risk of cancer, even when they are under the age of 40. “Women need to notice changes in their bodies – breast lumps, feeling bad, and promptly seek medical attention for those,” she reported. “There’s a tremendous survival improvement associated with diagnosis before the cancer spreads.”
The government-backed U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women between age 50 and 74 get a mammogram every other year, with the option to start earlier based on a woman’s own values.