About 5% of all breast cancers occur in women under the age of 40. Although breast cancer can affect anyone, some women have a higher risk. Some risk factors can make women more likely to develop breast cancer at younger ages, including:
- A family history of breast cancer
- A family history of other high-risk conditions, such as ovarian cancer
- History of radiation on the chest
- Genetic mutations known to increase breast cancer risk, including the BRCA gene
What should I do before I turn 40?
Women who have risk factors may be candidates for BRCA screening. These screenings are genetic tests that start around age 25. In general, women under 40 do not need mammograms. However, if the BRCA mutation is detected, women may be candidates to start screening mammograms at age 25. If a woman has a family history of breast cancer, doctors often recommend that the woman start screenings 10 years earlier than that family member was diagnosed.
What about after 40?
Women can start screening mammograms around age 40 if desired. At ages 45-54, all women should get yearly mammograms. At age 55, if no abnormalities have been detected, most women can switch to getting a mammogram every other year. Depending on a woman’s risk profile, screenings may continue annually. Women with higher risk may also need breast MRIs along with mammograms. All women should have open conversations with a healthcare provider about the benefits and limitations of screening mammograms.
How effective are mammograms?
Although mammograms are not perfect, the test can significantly reduce a woman’s risk of breast cancer complications. When healthcare providers catch cancer early, treatment is often much easier. Some research has found that regular screening mammograms reduce deaths from breast cancer by about 15-29%.
Preventive steps every woman can take
No matter the personal risk factors, every woman can take specific steps to lower the risk of breast cancer. Healthy lifestyle habits such as regular exercise, a nutritious diet, and limiting alcohol consumption can make a difference. Women should also speak to a healthcare provider right away about any notable breast changes, including lumps, pain, or nipple discharge. For more information about breast cancer prevention, speak with a healthcare provider.