Betsy Nay was 35 when she discovered a lump on her breast that turned out to be breast cancer.
“I probably spent a little too long justifying why it was something other than cancer or something to be concerned about,” Nay says. “When you’re 35 and relatively healthy, discovering you have cancer is not something you think will happen.”
Women who are younger than 45 account for about 9 percent of breast cancer diagnoses, says UNC Health oncologist Anureet Copeland, MD. Research published in August 2023, however, shows cancer among younger Americans, especially women, is on the rise.
UNC Health cancer epidemiologist Melissa Troester, PhD, breaks down the data and shares what it means for the future of women’s health.
Researchers Are Watching the Trend
In the study, researchers analyzed cancer data from 17 National Cancer Institute registries from 2010 to 2019. During that time, cancer rates among older adults fell, while rates among people younger than 50 (called early-onset) increased slightly—especially in the 30 to 39 age group. Breast cancer cases were the most common, while gastrointestinal cancers were the fastest growing.
Although the data is concerning, Dr. Troester says the true picture will take time to come into focus.
“It is important to remember that this is early data,” Dr. Troester says. “We need a few more years to understand the magnitude of the increase in cancer rates for younger people. We will continue to watch how the data unfolds.”
When Should Women Start Getting Mammograms?
In May 2023, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended that the age to begin breast cancer screening be dropped from 50 to 40. Dr. Troester agrees with the change in recommendation, which the task force is reviewing.
“At this point, a cancer diagnosis before age 40 is still relatively rare,” she says, adding that breast cancer can be diagnosed as early as in someone’s 20s. “You should pay attention to your body and report any changes promptly to your doctor. Early cancer detection is key to effective treatment.”
Your provider may recommend early screening if you have a family history of breast cancer, if you are a carrier of certain genetic mutations, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2, or if you’ve had radiation to the chest, Dr. Copeland says.
Focus on the Health Habits You Can Control
The study suggests a link between a rise in early-onset cancers and rates of obesity. While eating a healthy diet, exercising and getting enough sleep won’t guarantee you’ll avoid getting cancer, practicing these healthy habits could lower your risk.
“Obesity is known to increase risk of some cancers and other diseases,” Dr. Troester says. “Younger women have an ideal window to make behavioral changes geared toward maintaining a healthy weight.”
Another way to lower your cancer risk is to keep up with your primary care physician and make sure your doctor is informed about your family history. Don’t fall behind on your routine screenings, and speak up when something feels off.
“Life is busy, but be your own advocate,” Dr. Copeland says.
Nay is a great example of the importance of noticing something doesn’t feel right and talking to a doctor about it.
“There’s no point in denying something is wrong,” Nay says. “If you think something is wrong, get help.”
Talk to your doctor about your breast cancer risk. Need a doctor? Find one near you.