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Juvenile Breast Cancer in Teenagers

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Teenagers can get breast cancer too

Each year, approximately 200,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in the United States. Because more than 90% of these cases are found in women over the age of 40, unless they have a strong family history of the disease most younger women probably do not spend a lot of time worrying about breast cancer, even though they have undoubtedly heard much about it. In reality, this is mostly a good thing, as it makes sense for people to be more concerned about health conditions that are likely to strike members of their age group.

Nevertheless, a general awareness about breast cancer is important for women of all ages because while the threat for women in younger age groups is not high, it is also not non-existent. More than 10,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women under the age of 40 in the US each year, and the earlier these cancers are detected the better the overall prognosis. This is always true with breast cancer, of course, but it is especially true with younger women, since the cancers they get tend to be of the more aggressive and invasive type. Even though they may be aware that breast cancer presents a risk to all women, however, it never occurs to most people that even adolescent girls can occasionally be diagnosed with this disease. Not surprisingly, this demographic group has by far the lowest breast cancer rates among women. But for the teenagers and their families who have actually received this stunning diagnosis after visiting their doctors, the percentages are irrelevant to the reality they have been suddenly forced to live.

Searching for Answers
Girls going through puberty and adolescence experience many hormonal changes in their bodies as they mature. While the amount of breast tissue they develop during this time is small, cancer is capable of manifesting in any area of the body where cell division and growth is occurring. A strong family history of the disease, especially in first degree relatives such as a mother or sister, often indicate that genetic mutations are present that can predispose even very young women to breast cancer. It would be a mistake to overrate the strength of this risk factor, however – very, very few teens are ever diagnosed with breast cancer, regardless of their family history. There is no clear answer as to why a very small number of teenage girls develop breast cancer, and this is especially true when cancer is diagnosed in young women who appear to have no known risk factors for the disease.

Some concerns have been raised about the exposure of women to certain kinds of chemical pollutants that may mimic the effects of estrogen in the body. This female hormone has a well-established connection to breast cancer, based on the fact that cancerous cells in the breast area frequently have the capability of using estrogen as a source of nourishment and sustenance. In this post-industrial age, there are several kinds of pollutants in the environment with chemical signatures that are quite similar to estrogen. Some cancer experts have theorized that these chemicals could be a hidden cause of breast cancer in younger women in particular, whose rapidly-changing bodies may be vulnerable to the effects of these substances. At the present time, real scientific data to support the idea is scarce, but researchers have really only just begun the process of exploring the connection between environmental contaminants and the development of breast cancer.

Monitoring a Low-Risk Population for Breast Cancer
The key to finding breast cancer in groups that have a low risk for developing the disease is to promote awareness, so that regular efforts are made to check for the disease in all women even though the likelihood of it being present in some groups is low. It does not take long for a physician to give a clinical examination, and young women can learn how to perform breast self-examinations as well.

The one complication here is that it is actually relatively common for adolescent girls to develop lumps in their breasts while they are going through the normal process of physical maturation. The vast majority of these formations are masses that form in response to hormonal changes associated with adolescence. But given the consciousness that now exists in our society about breast cancer, when a teenage girl discovers one of these lumps it can cause quite a lot of consternation and even panic in the girl's family.

Diagnostic mammograms are not recommended for young women in this age group, because of the vulnerability of young bodies to radiation and because young women have denser breast tissue that can be difficult for mammograms to penetrate. The good news is that a very recent study carried out by the Loyola University Health System found that ultrasound does an excellent job of establishing when lumps found in the breasts of teenagers are benign. In about 25-30% of the cases looked at in this study, ultrasound was not able to provide a definitive answer, and biopsies needed to be performed in order to separate benign masses from those that were cancerous (all of the young women in this study ultimately tested negative for breast cancer). But with the use of ultrasound, it appears that only a few young women with anomalous lumps in their breast will actually need to have further tests performed.

Learning to Pay Attention Early
Fewer than 25 out of every 100,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer each year are under the age of 20. While it is true that cancers found in younger women are frequently quite aggressive, if detected early breast cancer survival rates are outstanding among all women, regardless of age. Awareness is what is most important – as long as teenage girls and their families realize that breast cancer can strike at any age, hopefully they will be ever vigilant and on the alert, which should allow them to find anything anomalous relatively quickly after if first appears.

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