Breast cancer can be defined as the development of malignant growth in the breast tissues due to abnormal and uncontrolled cell division. This type of cancer can affect the ducts of the breasts that carry milk (ductal carcinoma), or the lobules of the breasts that produce milk (lobular carcinoma). It could be invasive or non-invasive. Invasive ductal carcinoma, which is the cancer that begins in the milk ducts of the breast, can spread to other parts of the breast or the body. It is more common than the non-invasive breast cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer death in women in the United States. One widely believed fact about breast cancer is that only women above the age of 40 are at a risk of developing this condition. Though this is true to a certain extent, it should not be completely believed.
In other words, even young women between the age of 20 - 40 can be diagnosed with this cancer. According to studies conducted by experts, at least 7% women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are under the age of 40. This shows that young women are surely at a risk of developing this cancer, and hence it is important for them to be aware of the symptoms associated with this disease. Let us first take a look at the risk factors.
There are several factors that make a woman prone to this condition. Such risk factors are listed below.
- Family history of breast cancer puts a woman at an increased risk of developing this condition. If close female relatives such as mother, aunt, sister, or grandmother, have been diagnosed with the cancer earlier, she has higher chances of being diagnosed with it.
- Breast cancer can also recur in women who have been diagnosed with this condition earlier, and treated for the same.
- Another cause that has emerged during the recent times is breast enhancement. When a woman undergoes breast enhancement, it gives rise to hormonal imbalance which increases the chances of this cancer.
- A mutation in the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 due to previous episodes of radiation exposure also increases the risk of breast cancer in young women.
- Environmental factors like pesticides, food contamination, pollution, use of antiperspirants, are also said to be responsible for this problem.
- Other risk factors are race, dense breasts, heavy alcohol consumption, obesity, and high intake of red meat.
What's the Difference?
Though breast cancer doesn't differentiate between the young and the old, life for an affected young woman could be far more difficult. Some of the issues are discussed below.
- Early detection of cancer is difficult in case of women under the age of 40 as the mammary glands in women of this age group are quite dense. Hence, diagnostic tools like mammogram cannot detect any growth like cyst, tumors, easily.
- Since early detection of the condition is rare, by the time it is diagnosed, aggressive therapy and medication have to be used to prevent further damage. This can have several side effects.
- Case studies have revealed that breast malignancy diagnosed and treated in a woman in her prime has higher chances of recurrence in her later life.
- In certain cases, mastectomy (surgical removal of one or both the breasts) is the only treatment option which could lead to an avalanche of emotional stress, depression, and solitude.
- Though there is no scientific proof, but it has been pointed out that breast cancer, if detected at an early age in women, could have a direct impact on their fertility, menstrual cycle, and menopausal age.
There are various symptoms and warning signs of breast cancer, some of which are mentioned below.
- Appearance of lumps: A lump is the most common sign of breast cancer. However, since the anatomy of breasts is uneven and lumpy it becomes difficult to recognize it, and hence goes unnoticed for a time. A lump is a thickening that is felt near the breasts or sometimes in the armpits. This lump which is felt like a small-sized pea is not very painful, however, one may experience tenderness or irritation near that area.
- Changes in the structure of nipples: One of the earliest signs is changes in the nipples. Most women may observe that their nipples look retracted i.e. they may get pushed inward. The nipples may turn reddish in color, and it may be accompanied by pain as well as irritation.
- Discharge from the nipples: A woman may notice a thick, clear, or blood-stained discharge from the nipples, time and again.
- Changes in breast size: Another common change that is seen in women who have breast cancer is the change in the breast size or shape. Though these changes happen gradually, by the time one starts noticing it, the size may have changed considerably. However, whether the size of the breasts increases or decreases varies from woman to woman. In other words, some women may experience decrease in the breast size, while for others it may be the other way round. Also, a sudden change in the breast form (cup shape) is another symptom.
- Changes in the texture and color of breasts: Patients may observe that the color of the breast has changed to red or pink. The changes in color may occur either on the entire breast area, or only on certain areas of the skin. Scarring may occur on the breast giving the skin an orange color. Scaling or excessive dryness of the skin, and indentations on the breast or in the area above the breasts can also be noticed.
In case you experience any of the above symptoms, there are a few clinical tests that you must undergo to diagnose the condition appropriately. These are analyzed by a medical practitioner/doctor which helps to accurately state and confirm the location and aggressiveness of the tumor and cancer.
- Mammogram: It is a diagnostic tool that uses low intensity X-rays to detect any abnormalities in human breasts. It is one of the most popular techniques to detect tumors and cancerous growth in women. Usually this technique is not advised for young women as it fails to detect abnormal growths in the dense breast tissues.
- Ultrasound: This technique involves subjecting the breasts to sound waves which gives a clear picture of the structure and movement (blood flow, etc.) of the organ. This test is much more reliable than mammogram in case of women who are in their teens and early thirties.
- Biopsy: In case of suspected growth in the breast tissues, samples can be taken and send to a lab for biopsy to determine the nature, grade, etc. of the cells in the sample.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Computerized Tomography (CT) scan also help to clearly visualize the presence of cancers or tumors in any organ of the body.
As you are now aware of the risks of breast cancer in young women, I hope you will take the signs seriously. The American Cancer Society recommends women in their twenties to undergo self breast checkup every month after their periods. If you notice any of the symptoms mentioned, consult a health practitioner immediately who can diagnose the problem correctly. Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormonal therapy, and lifestyle modifications are some of the treatment options for breast cancer.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is solely for educating the reader. It is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a medical expert.