Young women shouldn’t be nonchalant about breast cancer

Healthcare specialists should discuss fertility preservation treatments and present patients with the option to remove and freeze some of their eggs since chemotherapy can destroy a woman’s ability to conceive. Photo: Pexels

(Tina Dawn/ VM Med) — Far too many people mistakenly believe that breast cancer is something only older women should worry about. While it’s true that most cases of breast cancer are found in women over 50, breast cancer still affects many younger women. It could be a costly mistake to assume that it’s not something younger women shouldn’t be equally vigilant about.

In fact, according to the Quebec Breast Cancer Foundation, breast cancer is the most diagnosed type of cancer in Quebec women aged 30 to 49, yet most people don’t know this. Breast cancer also happens to be the leading cause of cancer death for that age group. Of all cancer deaths in 30-to-49-year-olds, 17% are due to breast cancer.

Awareness and prevention are essential educational tools for young women. It is important and necessary that they conduct breast self-exams at home and notice any signs or symptoms that might indicate that a visit to the doctor is needed.

Although most changes detected by breast exams have nothing to do with cancer, it’s preferable to be alert, and “better safe than sorry” is always a good game plan for one’s health.  

A breast cancer diagnosis at a young age

A breast cancer diagnosis at any age is a stressful time. But coping with the shock of an unexpected diagnosis may be a different –and perhaps even more of an isolating– experience when the patient is young.

In 2022, the Quebec Breast Cancer Foundation launched an awareness-raising campaign for young women. Its call to action was: “Check your breasts. You’re not too young” and the campaign aimed to promote mindfulness among young women and family doctors about the risks of breast cancer in women aged 30 to 49.

But even if one is aware that it’s a possibility, they might still be emotionally unprepared for the unique challenge being diagnosed with a serious disease at a young age might entail. People in their 20s and 30s are typically starting their lives, planning their next steps, and looking towards the future, and it can be daunting to suddenly be putting everything on hold to fight a disease they didn’t see coming.

Loss of fertility and feelings of isolation

The challenges and the disruption in one’s life, as well as the impacts of a diagnosis can be far reaching for someone who is younger. What’s more, the lack of emotional support and difficulty in finding other women with the same disease who they can talk to, as well as support groups that can understand their unique challenges and fears only adds to the shock of a diagnosis.

Many younger patients may also find it difficult navigating the healthcare system because their concerns are sometimes not taken as seriously by some healthcare providers who feel that the odds of them being diagnosed with breast cancer are too low.

Fertility and pregnancy concerns and questions are also on top of the list of breast cancer challenges for younger women. Fertility preservation is an important concern for young women battling breast cancer because treatment is often associated with increased risks of infertility, premature ovarian insufficiency, and early menopause — even in patients who didn’t receive chemotherapy.

It’s therefore primordial that healthcare specialists discuss fertility preservation treatments and present patients with the option to remove and freeze some of their eggs since chemotherapy can destroy a woman’s ability to conceive. These are all unique challenges facing younger breast cancer patients.

Breast cancer more aggressive in younger women

Another major factor necessitating young women be concerned about the disease earlier and remain alert to its signs and symptoms, is how a breast cancer diagnosis differs in younger patients.

Research shows that breast cancer is usually more aggressive in young women. Younger women often have a fast-growing and invasive form of breast cancer, which requires more intense treatment and as a result often has more side-effects. Therefore, while the odds are lower that younger women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, the odds are worse for them if they are.

Vigilance saves lives. Earlier diagnosis of breast cancer increases the chances of survival. The five-year survival rate is 99% for breast cancer treated at an early stage.

With all this in mind, young women need to educate themselves about early detection, risk reduction and prevention of breast cancer, and never look at breast cancer as an older woman’s disease.