3 Ways Breast Cancer Is Different When You're Younger Than When You're Older, According To An OBGYN

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Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer in the United States, and it's estimated that one in eight women will develop breast cancer over the course of their lifetime, according to the nonprofit While fewer than 5 percent of individuals diagnosed are under 40, according to Susan G. Komen, it's important to know young people can (and do) get breast cancer. What's more, breast cancer in your 20s is different compared with when you're older — and it's important to know what these differences can look like.

The two kinds of breast cancer can't be put "in the same category," Dr. David Ellman of Women's Healthcare of Boca Raton, Florida, tells Bustle. Some of the major differences include the development of the cancer, how difficult it is to observe, and more. Further, it's important to be aware of possible symptoms of breast cancer as a young person, and not assume it's not possible to get the disease when you're young.

According to the American Cancer Society, a person's risk of breast cancer doubles if they have a first-degree relative (parent, child, sibling) diagnosed with breast cancer. Also, people with the BRCA1 mutation are 55-65 percent more likely to develop breast cancer over the course of their lives, and people with the BRCA2 mutation are 45 percent more likely, according to What's more, people who test positive for BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations are more likely to get breast cancer when they're young. If you believe you're at risk of developing breast cancer, it's important to talk to your doctor about your risk factors and how you can be proactive about your health.

Here are three ways breast cancer can be different in younger people than it is in older people.

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Younger People Realize They Have It Via Self-Exams

Since most women don't get annual mammograms until age 40, many younger people actually discover their breast cancer when they're self-examining their breasts. (If they even opt to do so at all — the Cleveland Clinic reports that many people may dismiss the practice, thinking they're too young to be at risk.)

According to Dr. Ellman, a great way to regularly self-examine is to pay close attention to your chest area while you shower. By paying close attention when washing your breasts, you can realize if something feels different or out of place. If you do find something concerning, it does not necessarily mean you have cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, many lumps are in fact benign, but a visit to your primary care doctor or OBGYN can help you figure out your next steps.


It May Be More Aggressive In Younger People

Although breast cancer is rare in people under 40, it's also true that when someone is diagnosed young, they may have a more aggressive type of breast cancer than someone who is over 40, according to Susan G. Komen.

Dr. Ellman says that when younger people perform a breast self-exam, they may originally feel a mass that feels more like a "big zit," and ignore it, but soon they may feel a big mass. "Because it's a big mass to begin with, it usually tends to be a much more aggressive breast cancer," Dr. Ellman says.

Because you can only typically feel a lump, whether it's benign or malignant, once it's a centimeter in size, according to Dr. Ellman, younger people are more likely to only notice potential tumors once they've grown, versus having a mammogram that can detect smaller, potentially less aggressive tumors.


It's Harder to Screen In Younger People

According to Dr. Ellman, younger people have more dense breast tissue, which means it's harder for an x-ray to pass through.

However, as you age, breast tissue gets replaced with fatty tissue, which makes it easier to do an imaging study. "In an older person, [the x-ray] goes through [the breast tissue] more easily, so you're looking for white spots on a black background in an older breast, versus in a younger breast, you're looking for white spots on a white background, so it's much harder to see," Dr. Ellman says.

Another way to confirm breast cancer in young people is by getting a biopsy, where a part of the breast tissue is removed and examined.


The best ways to stay on top of your breast health is to ask about your family history and genetics, and make sure you're regularly self-examining. If you have a family history of breast cancer, test positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations, or are just generally concerned about your breast health as a young person, you can always speak with your doctor and determine what your risks are. Knowledge is power, after all.