Breast cancer in younger women

1. Diagnosed as a younger woman
2. How is breast cancer in younger women treated?
3. Fertility, pregnancy and breast cancer treatment
4. Younger women with a family history of breast cancer
5. Support for younger women with breast cancer

1. Diagnosed as a younger woman

Breast cancer is not common in younger women, so being diagnosed at a younger age can be very isolating.

Being told you have breast cancer can come as a huge shock. It can be particularly unexpected because of your age.

You might not know much about breast cancer and feel unprepared to make decisions about your treatment. Having breast cancer at a young age often involves making choices about your future sooner than you would have otherwise. At times you can feel like you’ve lost control over what’s happening in your life and feel isolated, anxious, angry and frightened. These are all common feelings. However, everybody responds differently and you can have some, all or none of these feelings at different stages of your diagnosis and treatment.

You may want to read our information on being diagnosed with breast cancer and how this may make you feel.

Feeling isolated

You may find that you don't see other people like you at the breast clinic which can make you feel alone and have difficulty coping with the diagnosis and making decisions about treatment. This can be particularly difficult if you are single or don’t have anyone you can talk to. We have information and support that can help you make the right choices for you and feel less isolated.

Although it's rare, some women are diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant or shortly after having their baby. Find out more about breast cancer and pregnancy.

Telling other people

Telling someone you have cancer is difficult whatever your age. As a younger woman you can find it particularly hard to talk to people about your breast cancer. You may have no experience of serious illness, or you may still be coming to terms with the shock of your diagnosis. Talking openly about your cancer and your thoughts and feelings can be difficult, especially at first, but it can make it easier for the people around you to offer help and support.

You might be the first person among your family, friends or work colleagues to be diagnosed with cancer and those close to you might struggle to accept what has happened to you. People can react in various ways. For example, a parent or partner might constantly offer help, advice and support, even if you’d like some space or time alone.

Read more about telling family and friends.

If you have children, deciding how and what to tell them can be very difficult. It’s probably best to be open and honest as it can be less frightening for them to know what’s going on, even if they don’t fully understand. We have resources that can help you talk to your children about your diagnosis. Our picture book Mummy's Lump is aimed at children under 7, the booklet Medikidz explain breast cancer is aimed at older children. You may also want to read our booklet Talking with your children about breast cancer.

You don't have to cope alone with your feelings, our Helpline is on hand to help you talk through your diagnosis and can offer information and support. Call us free, six days a week, on 0808 800 6000.

You can find out more about these issues in our booklet, Breast cancer in younger women: coping with a diagnosis at 45 or under.

2. How is breast cancer in younger women treated?

Younger women can be offered a number of treatments for breast cancer. Here’s a summary of some of the treatments used. Your specialist team will consider many different factors when deciding the best treatment for you.

  • Surgery is often the first treatment for women with breast cancer. It aims to remove the cancer with a margin (border) of normal breast tissue to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back in the breast and try to stop any spread elsewhere in the body. Find out more about the different types of breast surgery.
  • Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer drug to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy can be given before surgery or after surgery and before radiotherapy.
  • Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to destroy any cancer cells left behind in the breast area after surgery.
  • Hormone therapy drugs block the effects of the hormone oestrogen on cancer cells. They’re only used if your breast cancer is hormone receptor positive. The most common drugs used in pre-menopausal women are tamoxifen and goserelin (Zoladex)
  • Targeted therapy is a group of drugs that block the growth and spread of cancer. They target and interfere with processes in the cells that cause cancer to grow. The most widely used is trastuzumab (Herceptin). Only people whose cancer has high levels of HER2 (HER2 positive), a protein that makes cancer cells grow, will benefit from having trastuzumab.
  • Ovarian suppression involves removing the ovaries or stopping them from working – blocking the effect of the hormone oestrogen on cancer cells.
  • Bisphosphonates – these drugs are sometimes used to reduce the risk of primary breast cancer spreading to the bones or elsewhere in the body. They are unlikely to be recommended unless your periods have stopped (post-menopausal). This is because the benefits of using them before the menopause are less clear.

Side effects of treatment

Breast cancer treatment can cause a number of side effects. Some are temporary and go away once treatment ends, while others are more long-lasting. Some side effects of treatment have a very specific impact for younger women. Chemotherapy and treatments aimed at blocking the effect oestrogen has on breast cancer cells can cause a number of issues. These include:

Find our more about the side effects of breast cancer treatment.

3. Fertility, pregnancy and breast cancer treatment

Find out more about the effects of breast cancer treatment on fertility and pregnancy »

4. Younger women and family history of breast cancer

Having breast cancer at a young age may point to a family history of an altered breast cancer gene. Depending on certain features of your cancer diagnosis, you may be offered a referral for an assessment to find out if you’re eligible for genetic testing.

However, most young women with breast cancer don’t have an altered gene.

Read our guide on breast cancer, genes and family history for more information, or download our Family history, genes and breast cancer booklet.

5. Support for younger women with breast cancer

Being diagnosed with breast cancer as a younger woman may mean that you don't meet anyone in the same situation as you. We have information and support that can help you feel less isolated.

Meet others who have been there

Our Younger Women Together events are for women aged 20-45 who have been diagnosed with primary breast cancer in the last three years. The events happen across the county and feature two days of information and support alongside the chance to meet other younger women. Find out more about Younger Women Together and where and when the next event is happening.

You can speak to one of our trained volunteers through our Someone Like Me service. We can put you in touch with someone who has also experienced what it's like to have breast cancer as a younger woman. If you don't want to talk on the phone, some of our volunteers are available via email. Find out more about our Someone Like Me service.

You can ask questions and exchange tips with other younger women on our Forum.

Find out about all our services and what's available in your area. If you're not sure which of our services would suit you best, call our Helpline on 0808 800 6000.

Last reviewed: September 2017
Next planned review begins 2019

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Please note that we cannot respond to comments. If you have any questions about breast cancer please contact the Helpline on 0808 800 6000.

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