Though most women who get breast cancer are over age 50, young women can and do get breast cancer. Five percent of all breast cancers diagnosed in the U.S. each year occur in women under 40 .
A breast cancer diagnosis at a younger age can be especially shocking and challenging. At a time in life most often reserved for family and career, issues of treatment, recovery and survivorship suddenly take top priority.
However, with early detection and treatment, most of these young women can expect to live a long time. While this is good news, starting down the path of survivorship at a young age brings unique concerns.
Loss of fertility
A main concern for young breast cancer survivors is loss of fertility. A potential side effect of chemotherapy is early menopause. The older a woman is, the more likely that chemotherapy will bring on menopause. Early menopause ends a woman's chance for a natural pregnancy. This can be very difficult for women who had hoped to have a child after completing treatment.
For women who don't go through early menopause, tamoxifen therapy is generally recommended for five years. Although tamoxifen does not affect fertility, it can shorten the window of time to have children. Tamoxifen can cause birth defects. So, it's important for women to avoid pregnancy while taking tamoxifen. And, unfortunately fertility will decline naturally with age during this time.
Having a child after breast cancer treatment
If you wish to have a child after treatment, talk to your health care provider (and if possible, a fertility specialist) before making treatment decisions and discuss your options. Meeting with a fertility specialist as early as possible (ideally before surgery) offers the widest range of options. These include storing embryos before treatment begins and using a drug during therapy that may help protect the ovaries from damage.
Other options include adoption and egg donation.
Learn more about fertility options.
Financial assistance for fertility services
Insurance coverage for fertility services varies widely from state to state. Check with your insurance provider to find out which procedures are covered in your policy.
Organizations such as Fertile Hope offer financial aid when insurance providers do not cover fertility services.
Other issues related to early menopause
Concerns about body image and sexuality can be difficult for younger survivors. Moreover, early menopause can cause changes that decrease sexual pleasure. The long-term health effects of early menopause, such as an increased risk of osteoporosis, can be a worry as well.
Learn more about sexuality and intimacy after breast cancer treatment.
Learn more about treating menopausal symptoms.
Learn more about medical care after treatment.
Support for young survivors
Many young survivors feel a sense of isolation. Though they share many concerns with older survivors, younger women need to be able to share their thoughts and feelings with women who are at the same stage of life. Other young survivors are juggling similar priorities, such as raising a family and working.
Many hospitals and community centers organize support groups for young survivors. The Internet is also a good resource. Many websites, such as the Young Survival Coalition, offer chat rooms and e-mail discussion groups where young survivors can share their common experiences.
*Please note, the information provided within Komen Perspectives articles is only current as of the date of posting. Therefore, some information may be out of date at this time.