The number of younger women (aged under 50) being diagnosed with breast cancer has topped 10,000 in one year for the first time in the United Kingdom, says Cancer Research UK, a charity.

Today in the UK, out of every five women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, one is aged under 50 years. Each year nearly 50,000 breast cancer diagnoses are made.

Even though more younger women are being diagnosed with breast cancer, mortality (death rate) in that age group has dropped considerably, thanks to new treatments. Cancer Research UK added that these new treatments are the result of research.

In 1995, approximately 7,700 women under the age of 50 were diagnosed with breast cancer. By 2010, the number had risen by 11% (more than 10,000 cases). Breast cancer incidence among females of all ages grew by 18% during the same period.

An article published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) reported that slightly more younger American women today are being diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer. The authors of the report, from the Institut Jules Bordet, in Brussels, Belgium, defined younger women as those aged from 25 to 39 years.

Experts are not sure why breast cancer incidence is increasing among younger females. Cancer Research UK believes hormonal factors, such as having children later in life and having fewer of them, as well as increasing alcohol consumption are probably the main contributory factors. The contraceptive pill might also be playing a role.

Cancer Research UK’s director of health information, Sara Hiom, , said:

“Breast cancer is more common in older women but these figures show that younger women are also at risk of developing the disease.

Women of all ages who notice anything different about their breasts, including changes in size, shape or feel, a lump or thickening, nipple discharge or rash, dimpling, puckering or redness of the skin, should see their GP straight away, even if they have attended breast cancer screening. It’s more likely not to be cancer but if it is, detecting it early gives the best chance of successful treatment.”

Even though more women under 50 are being diagnosed with breast cancer than in the past, the rate at which these women die from the disease has declined by 40% since the beginning of the 1990s:

  • In the early 1990s, 9 per 100,000 younger women died from breast cancer
  • By 2010, five per 100,000 younger women died from the disease
  • Over 80% of all women diagnosed today with breast cancer before they are 50 years old survive for at least five years

Hiom said:

“The number of cases in women under 50 diagnosed with breast cancer is increasing slowly, but thanks to research, awareness and improved care more women than ever before are surviving the disease. Cancer Research UK’s crucial work in the laboratory is behind many important drugs, such as tamoxifen and herceptin, and our trials of drugs called aromatase inhibitors paved the way for the development of anastrozole – all of this is helping to give women with breast cancer more treatment options.”

Ann Partridge, MD, MPH, who founder of the Program for Young Women with Breast Cancer at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, said in September 2008 “In addition to being at higher risk of dying from breast cancer than older women, young women with breast cancer are at increased risk of psychosocial distress at diagnosis and in follow-up when compared with older women. Young women with breast cancer face a variety of unique medical and psychosocial concerns as a result of their diagnosis and subsequent treatment. In particular, fertility and family planning, menopausal symptoms, and sexual functioning are of great concern to this patient population.”

Christian Nordqvist