An analysis of breast cancer trends in the US has found that new cases of advanced breast cancer are increasing among women ages 25 to 39. The finding is especially troubling because breast cancer in younger women tends to be more aggressive and has lower survival rates than breast cancer in older women.
Researchers from University of Washington, Seattle and Central Oregon and Oregon Health and Science University, Portland analyzed medical records from the US Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) registries between 1976 and 2009. The SEER program of the National Cancer Institute collects data about cancer diagnoses and survival in the US.
The researchers found that since 1976, there has been a small but steady increase in cases of breast cancer that has spread to other organs (metastasized) at the time of diagnosis in women ages 25 to 39. The increase averages to a little more than 2% per year. According to lead researcher Rebecca H. Johnson, MD, there were about 250 cases of metastatic breast cancer among that age group in 1976, and about 800 cases a year in 2008-2009. The analysis focused on the numbers, but did not investigate the cause of the increase.
Jorge Perez, a Board Certified Oncologist at Sierra Nevada Cancer Center, believes further research is warranted before sweeping recommendations can be made. “While this is alarming and noteworthy, we still don’t understand what is causing this increase,” says Perez. “Is it a toxin in the environment? A lifestyle change? This requires more study before we can offer young women new recommendations for their health care.”
The likelihood of a woman under 40 getting breast cancer is still statistically very low and, despite the increase, the evidence does not support regular screening mammograms for women before age 40.
The main take away message for young women is to be aware that cancer can strike at any age and to be vigilant about changes to their breasts. “Regular self-examination of the breasts is appropriate for women of all ages,” says Dr. Perez.
According to American Cancer Society, women in their 20s and 30s should have a clinical breast exam as part of a regular health exam by a health professional, at least every three years. After age 40, women should have a breast exam by a health professional every year.
“The key is to take any detectible abnormality seriously,” cautions Perez. “Let your doctor tell you it’s nothing to worry about.”
Jorge Perez, MD, PhD, MRCP, MRCPath, is a Board Certified Oncologist and Hematologist with Sierra Nevada Cancer Center based in Carson City, Nevada. Sierra Nevada Cancer Center has locations throughout northern Nevada to provide cancer patients with easy access to high quality chemotherapy and infusion treatments in a compassionate environment.
The original study was published in the February 27, 2013 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.