8 Ways Young Women Can Decrease Their Breast Cancer Risk

In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) launched the Bring Your Brave Campaign to make young women, ages 18-44, aware of their risk factors for developing breast cancer. While most breast cancers occur in women over 50, the CDC states that 11% of new breast cancers are diagnosed in women less than 45 years of age.

Doctor consults with patient
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According to the American Cancer Society, in 2020, it is estimated that there will be 276,480 new diagnoses of invasive breast cancer in American women. In addition, there will be 48,530 new cases of carcinoma in situ (CIS), a non-invasive, early form of breast cancer diagnosed in women. This would bring the total number of new cases of breast cancer to 325,010. Using the CDC percentage of 11%, that means that in 2020, about 35,751 young women under the age of 45 will get a breast cancer diagnosis.

Breast cancer, at any age, is a serious and life-threatening experience. For young women, it is also a major life-changer occurring when most women 18-44 are continuing their education, dating, getting married, raising a family, and building a career.

Because many young women fail to realize they can get breast cancer, they don’t get routine comprehensive breast exams or start mammograms early. Consequently, their breast cancers are found at a later stage when they are more advanced and harder to treat. Many do not know their family history and the significance of having breast cancer in the family.

While there are specific risk factors for breast cancer that young women all have, such as being a woman and having breast tissue, there are some risk factors that place women younger than 45 at higher risk, including women with:

  • Family members diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 45
  • Family members diagnosed with ovarian cancer at any age
  • A male relative diagnosed with breast cancer
  • Close relatives with changes in their BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes
  • An Ashkenazi Jewish heritage
  • A past history of radiation therapy to the breast or chest in childhood or young adulthood
  • A history of breast health problems
  • Dense breasts confirmed on a mammogram

Young women with any of these risk factors need to speak with their physician and review their family history in detail. Genetic counseling and testing for BRCA gene mutations will likely be recommended to women whose family history reflects certain types of breast and ovarian cancers.

Each woman’s discussion with her physician needs to include a plan for managing risk factors, such as having a breast cancer screening. While screenings won’t prevent breast cancer, cancers caught in screenings are usually found at an early stage, when they are easier to treat and have a better outcome. 

Young women can reduce their risk of getting breast cancer by:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Exercising regularly
  • Limiting alcoholic intake to one drink per day
  • Choosing not to smoke or quitting smoking
  • Discussing the risks of taking hormone therapy or oral contraceptives (birth control pills) with your doctor
  • Talking to your doctor if you have a family history of breast cancer
  • Opting to breastfeed your child, if possible
  • Reducing exposure to cancer-causing chemicals

The CDC confirms that having risk factors for breast cancer doesn’t mean it is a given that a young woman will get breast cancer, nor does it mean that not having known risk factors is a guarantee she won’t.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bring Your Brave campaign. Updated April 5, 2019.

  2. American Cancer Society. How common is breast cancer? Updated January 8, 2020.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Risk factors for breast cancer at a young age. Updated April 5, 2019.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genetic counseling and testing. Updated April 5, 2019.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is breast cancer screening? Updated September 11, 2018.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What are the risk factors for breast cancer? Updated September 11, 2018.