Can Teenagers Get Breast Cancer?

What to know about breast changes during puberty and breast cancer risk

Breast cancer is incredibly rare in teenagers. According to the American Cancer Society, between 2012 and 2016, the rate for female breast cancer in 15- to 19-year-olds in the United States was 0.1 in 100,000. That equals one teen in a million.

Breast changes are a normal part of growing up and nothing to be scared of. You may worry that these changes are related to cancer, but this is very unlikely.

This article will look at teenage breast cancer, including symptoms to look out for, myths about breast cancer, and normal breast changes in puberty.

Breast cancer awareness pink ribbon

Burak Karademir / Getty Images

Puberty and Overlapping Breast Cancer Symptoms 

When breasts begin to grow, they appear as a lump (called a breast bud) underneath the nipple. This is a normal part of the development process.

The breasts get bigger and rounder as the fatty tissue and milk-producing glands inside the breasts continue to grow. As the breast buds grow, you may notice tingling, aching, or itching in your chest, and your nipples may swell or become tender.

After your periods start, the changing hormones may make your breasts feel tender, swollen, or sore a week or so just before your period starts. This is all normal.

Breast Cancer Misconceptions

There’s a lot of misinformation and myths online about breast cancer. Don’t believe everything you read, particularly if it doesn’t come from a reliable medical source.

Some breast cancer myths include:

  • Finding a lump in your breast means you have breast cancer: Only a small percentage of breast lumps turn out to be cancer. 
  • Wearing a bra can cause breast cancer: There is no evidence that bras cause breast cancer.
  • Carrying your cell phone in your bra can cause breast cancer: There is no evidence of a connection between cell phones and breast cancer.
  • Breast cancer is contagious: You can’t catch breast cancer or transfer it to someone else’s body. 
  • Antiperspirants and deodorants cause breast cancer: Researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) are not aware of any firm evidence linking the use of underarm antiperspirants or deodorants and the development of breast cancer.

Other Teenage Breast Changes

Plenty of changes happen to your breasts that are not cancer. Most breast lumps in teenage girls are fibroadenomas, which are noncancerous. These are caused by an overgrowth of connective tissue in the breast.

Fibroadenomas are the reason for 91% of all solid breast masses in girls younger than 19 years old. The lump is usually hard and rubbery, and you would be able to move it around with your fingers.

Other less common breast lumps in teens include cysts, which are noncancerous fluid-filled sacs. A breast cyst often feels smooth and soft. If you press on a cyst, it will feel a little like a water balloon.

Breasts and Birth Control

Some research has shown that taking hormonal birth control (the pill) slightly increases the risk of breast cancer. But once you stop using hormonal birth control, risk levels eventually return to normal.

An analysis of data from more than 150,000 women showed that, overall, women who had ever used oral contraceptives had a slight (7%) increase in the risk of breast cancer compared with women who had never used oral contraceptives.

If you use hormonal birth control and you’re concerned about your cancer risk, discuss your options with your doctor before stopping your birth control.

Typical Breast Cancer Age

The main factors that influence your risk of getting breast cancer include being a woman and getting older. Most breast cancers are found in women who are 50 years old or older. Only about 5% of breast cancer cases occur in women under 40 years of age.

Symptoms to Look For 

The most common symptom of breast cancer is a new lump or mass. Therefore, it’s important to have any new breast mass, lump, or breast change checked by an experienced healthcare professional.

Other possible symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no lump is felt)
  • Skin dimpling (sometimes looking like an orange peel)
  • Breast or nipple pain
  • Nipple retraction (turning inward)
  • Nipple or breast skin that is red, dry, flaking, or thickened
  • Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)
  • Swollen lymph nodes (Sometimes breast cancer can spread to lymph nodes under the arm or around the collarbone and cause a lump or swelling there, even before the original tumor in the breast is large enough to be felt.)

Although any of these symptoms can be caused by things other than breast cancer, if you have them, you should report them to a healthcare professional so the cause can be found.

Causes of Breast Cancer 

No one knows the exact cause of breast cancer, but there are known risk factors such as:

  • Changes to your genes: Known as genetic mutations (most notably BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations)
  • Family history of breast cancer: If your mother or grandmother had breast cancer, you might be terrified you will get it too. But only about 5% to 10% of people diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history of this disease.
  • More dense breasts: Breasts with higher amounts of connective tissue vs. fat can mask cancers. 
  • Personal history of cancer
  • Prior exposure to radiation: Young women who have had radiation therapy for another condition, like Hodgkin lymphoma, are especially at high risk.
  • Smoking
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Obesity: Being overweight or obese heightens the risk of breast cancer after menopause. 
  • Sedentary lifestyle

Some factors like smoking, obesity, and alcohol use are preventable factors, while others like older age and genetics are out of your control.

Treatment at a Glance 

Treatment for breast cancer depends on how far the disease has spread and your general health when you are diagnosed. Some treatment options include: 

  • Surgery: In these cases, a lumpectomy or mastectomy is carried out. A lumpectomy includes the removal of the tumor and surrounding tissue. A mastectomy involves the removal of the whole breast.
  • Radiation: Using cancer-killing beams, radiation therapy targets undetected cancer cells, further reducing the risk of cancer returning.
  • Hormone therapy: This treatment is effective for those breast cancers that are affected by hormones in the blood.
  • Chemotherapy: This is usually given after breast surgery but before radiation, and uses drugs directly injected into the vein via a needle or taken in pill form to target and kill cancer cells. 

When to Start Breast Examinations 

The American Cancer Society no longer recommends regular breast self-exams, since there’s no evidence that they help reduce breast cancer deaths.

The organization still believes that being familiar with what is normal for your breasts will make it easier to recognize any changes that happen. A change in breast shape or texture, a new lump, or other significant change could signal a problem that should be checked out by your healthcare provider.

Most teens don’t need breast exams at the doctor because they are not at high risk for cancer. But if you have a family history of breast problems, your doctor or nurse might give you a breast exam during your annual checkup.

Can Teenagers Get Mammograms

Mammograms (an X-ray of the breast) are not used routinely in teens because:

  • Teenage breasts tend to be dense, making it hard for traditional 2-D mammograms to detect lumps.
  • The X-ray exposes breasts to radiation, which can lead to cell damage, especially in young, developing bodies.

Summary

Breast changes are a normal part of growing up and nothing to be scared of. Even if you are deemed “high risk,” the chance of developing breast cancer as a teen is very rare. The survival rate for breast cancer in teens is also extremely high, and multiple treatments are available.

A Word From Verywell

Breast cancer in teens is incredibly rare, a literal one in a million chance.

Breast changes are part of your development as a teenage girl and may cause concern if you are unsure what “normal” feels like. Talk to a woman you trust for reassurance about breast changes related to hormones and puberty. They will be able to put your mind at ease.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is breast hardness in teens normal?

    Normal breast tissue can feel lumpy, and at times you may feel a firm bump or nodule in your breast that seems a little different. Most of the time, these lumps are nothing to worry about.

  • What is the survival rate for teen breast cancer?

    Researchers estimate that the five-year relative survival rate for 15- to 19-year-olds in the United States is around 85%. This means that they’re 85% as likely to live another five years as 15- to 19-year-olds in the United States without breast cancer.

  • What should teenage girls look for in a self-breast examination?

    It’s good to get used to the way your breasts normally look and feel. When you check your breasts, you’re looking for a change in breast shape or texture, a new lump, or other significant change.

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10 Sources
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