Younger women increasingly get more aggressive form of breast cancer

Woman credits breastfeeding for cancer discovery

INDIANAPOLIS - Breast cancer is becoming more prevalent in younger women, and the type of cancer they are getting is often more aggressive.

Amy Davis, 36, was a new mom when she found a lump in her breast. Because she was breastfeeding daughter Isla, 8 months, at the time, she thought it was just a clogged duct. But the lump got bigger.

"The biopsy happened on a Thursday and on Monday, the called and said, 'Your cells are cancerous,'" Davis said. "Of course, a lot of emotion happens when you're told that news, and I called my husband. He was at work and he came home immediately and we just cried."

The cancer was growing so quickly that Davis had to begin strong chemotherapy immediately, followed by surgery and radiation.

"I told my husband it was like they were telling me I'm going to die in two weeks, you know," Davis said.

Dr. Juliana Meyer, a surgeon at St. Vincent Women's Hospital, said about 6 to 7 percent of breast cancer occurs in women under 40.

"When you think about that, that's actually a pretty high number, and we're seeing a lot of new concerns come up with that," Meyer said. "It's a different population than we routinely screen with mammograms because, as you know, mammograms start at 40."

Meyer said younger women with breast cancer typically have a different type than older women that must be treated more aggressively, and mammograms aren't as effective in younger women because their breast tissue is denser.

No studies have indicated why breast cancer is showing up in younger women. A healthy diet, not smoking and exercise help decrease the risk, and monthly self-breast examinations are still the best defense.

"I have some women who will say to me, 'Oh, I just don't do it because I just feel like I've got lumps everywhere,'" said Julie Schneiders, a nurse practitioner at St. Vincent Women's Hospital. "If they would do it on a monthly basis, they will know what's normal for them."

Schneiders trains patients, fellow technicians and doctors how to give clinical breast exams.

"The two most common places that you'll find lumps in women (are) upper, outer quadrant and … right behind your nipple. That is 75 percent of all breast lumps," Schneiders said. "I have them make circles. So it's light, medium, deep and then they move a finger."

Schneiders recommends yearly exams by a health care provider starting at age 20. If a doctor doesn't offer the exam, don't be afraid to ask.

Davis said she's grateful she happened to be breastfeeding, believing that's the only reason she felt her tumor early.

"I would say to women that are young, just be aware of their body," she said.

Meyer suggested that women who have multiple first-degree relatives, such as a sister, mother or aunt, who have had breast cancer to see a genetic counselor early on.

Those who have a family history should begin screenings eight to 10 years before their relative was diagnosed.

Experts said they are seeing more women who want to take extreme measures, such as preventive double mastectomy, but they said that that decision should be weighed very carefully.

It is still recommended that women over 40 have a mammogram every year. It's possible that recommendation may change with younger women being diagnosed.

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