What age can you get breast cancer?

Laura Chamberlin first noticed a lump in her breast when she was a graduate student living in Seattle, Washington. She told her doctor, who said not to worry.

She said, ‘You’re young. You just have dense tissue,” Laura recalled.

After moving to Louisville a year later to work as an art therapist, Laura went to an emergency room for an ear infection. She named the lump and was referred for a biopsy. Laura was 28 when she learned she had breast cancer.

“It was definitely a shock,” Laura said, though the diagnosis didn’t feel real until she made the difficult phone calls to family and friends to tell them the news.

Patients under 40, such as Laura, make up 5% of breast cancer cases.

“The numbers are not growing significantly. I think we do a better job screening. Our screening helped us find it sooner,” said Blakely Kute, MD, a medical oncologist at the Norton Cancer Institute Women’s Cancer Center.

If you’re not old enough for a mammogram, self-exams can help with early detection

Annual screening mammograms are not recommended for most until age 40. According to Dr. Kute, most patients under 40 who find out they have breast cancer usually seek an exam because they have felt a lump or have some other reason to suspect the diagnosis.

dr. Kute’s advice to people under 40 is to talk about breast cancer with their healthcare provider, who has sophisticated calculators to determine risk. Monthly self-exams to check for lumps are an important part of early detection that can significantly increase breast cancer survival.

If a patient goes to their health care provider with a palpable lump, breast pain, or nipple discharge, they are often first assessed by a primary care provider and then they would have breast imaging, including a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound, according to Dr. cute. If a specialist breast radiologist is concerned with the imaging findings, a biopsy or additional imaging may be recommended, as not all breast masses that can be felt are cancerous.

Lifestyle also plays a role in breast cancer, and according to Dr. Kute is only 10 to 15% of breast cancers hereditary. While there are certain risk factors that cannot be changed, she recommends reducing the risk by maintaining a healthy weight, eating a balanced diet, exercising for 2½ hours a week, and consuming no more than one alcoholic drink per day.

Younger patients diagnosed with breast cancer are, according to Dr. Kute in a different place in their lives than those who are older. Many are embarking on new careers, are newly married or in a new relationship, have not yet had children or have small children – all with a different set of challenges.

Edie Wooton was 40 when she felt a lump high under her rib cage. Edie’s children were 7 and 5 when she started her treatment at Norton Cancer Institute.

Breast health at any age

Through the combined services of Norton Women’s Care and Norton Cancer Institute, the Norton Healthcare Breast Health Program, accredited by the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers (NAPBC), provides quality care with a holistic approach to support breast health.

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“They were little critters. It was tough,” said Edie, who was undergoing chemotherapy followed by surgery.

Never too young to look at yourself

Although Edie’s mother had died of breast cancer not long before her diagnosis, Edie discovered that her breast cancer was not hereditary. Edie’s treatment was successful, and the independent grant writer has now been cancer-free for over five years.

“I’m just trying to take care of myself and do my best,” said Edie, now 47.

To stay in shape and have fun, she has joined a competitive dragon boat paddle team made up of fellow breast cancer survivors.

Her advice to others: ‘I don’t think you’re ever too young to check things out. I don’t think you can be vigilant enough. I think you really need to understand your body and find people to talk to so you have that support system.”

Laura, who had a double mastectomy at age 29, said some people are more likely to reject symptoms or doubt themselves when they are young. As with Edie, Laura’s breast cancer was not genetic.

Laura used art to help herself relax and stay grounded through the trauma, anger and grief of being diagnosed with cancer so early in her life. Laura is now 38 and works as an art therapist at the Norton Cancer Institute.

“There’s a pressure to be a ‘cancer fighter’ — to be brave and do it with a smile,” Laura said. “People don’t need that extra pressure. We don’t say that about heart disease or diabetes.”

Through art, Laura hopes to help patients process feelings as she experienced them as a young breast cancer patient with an uncertain future.

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