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Advanced breast cancer edges up in younger women

Dr. Rebecca Johnson, a cancer specialist at Seattle Children’s Hospital is the lead author of a new study that shows that advanced breast cancer cases have increased slightly among young women, a 33-year analysis suggests.
Dr. Rebecca Johnson, a cancer specialist at Seattle Children’s Hospital is the lead author of a new study that shows that advanced breast cancer cases have increased slightly among young women, a 33-year analysis suggests.
Published Feb. 27, 2013

Advanced breast cancer has increased slightly among young women, a 33-year analysis suggests. The disease is still uncommon among women younger than 40, and the small change has experts scratching their heads about possible reasons.

The results are potentially worrisome because young women's tumors tend to be more aggressive than older women's, and they're much less likely to get routine screening for the disease.

Still, that doesn't explain why there would be an increase in advanced cases, and the researchers and other experts say more work is needed to find answers.

It's likely that the increase has more than one cause, said Dr. Rebecca Johnson, the study's lead author and medical director of a teen and young adult cancer program at Seattle Children's Hospital.

"The change might be due to some sort of modifiable risk factor, like a lifestyle change" or exposure to some sort of cancer-linked substance, she said.

Johnson said the results translate to about 250 advanced cases diagnosed in women younger than 40 in the mid 1970s versus more than 800 in 2009. During those years, the number of women nationwide in that age range went from about 22 million to closer to 30 million — an increase that explains part of the study trend "but definitely not all of it," Johnson said.

The authors reviewed a U.S. government database of cancer cases from 1976 to 2009. The study was published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Dr. Ann Partridge, chairwoman of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's advisory committee on breast cancer in young women, said the study shouldn't cause alarm. Still, she said young women should be familiar with their breasts and see the doctor if they notice any lumps or other changes.