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Women diagnosed with breast cancer at young age have higher risk of disease spreading, new study says

Written by on 3 November 2021

Women diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age appear to have a higher risk of the disease spreading to other parts of the body, a new study has found.

Overall, the risk of breast cancer spreading is between 6% and 22% however, it is higher in women diagnosed before the age of 35.

For these younger women, they have a 12.7% to 38% risk of the cancer metastasizing.

By comparison, women aged over 50 have a 3.7% to 28.6% risk of the disease returning.

Signs of breast cancer include:

  • A lump or thickened area
  • Swelling or a lump in the armpit
  • Change in nipple appearance or discharge
  • New puckering or dimpling
  • Constant or unusual pain in the breast or armpit
  • A sudden or unusual change in size or shape
  • A rush on the nipple or surrounding area

“This may be because younger women have a more aggressive form of breast cancer or because they are being diagnosed at a later stage,” said Dr Eileen Morgan from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) who presented the study.

She added: “Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in the world.

“Most women are diagnosed when their cancer is confined to the breast or has only spread to nearby tissue.

“But in some women, the cancer will grow and spread to other parts of the body or come back in a different part of the body several years after the end of their initial treatment.

“At this point the cancer becomes much harder to treat and the risk of dying is higher. However, we don’t really know how many people develop metastatic breast cancer because cancer registries have not been routinely collecting this data.”

Around 1,000 women in the UK die each month from incurable secondary breast cancer.

The study, which involved a detailed review of more than 400 previous studies, set out to examine which patients are likely to go on to develop advanced breast cancer.

Women with specific types of breast cancer also appeared to have a higher risk – for example those diagnosed with a type of cancer called luminal B, according to the study, which was presented at the Advanced Breast Cancer Sixth International Consensus Conference.

Those with this cancer had a 4.2% to 35.5% risk of metastasis compared to 2.3% to 11.8% risk in women diagnosed with luminal A cancer.

The risk of breast cancer coming back after initial diagnosis and spreading to other organs appeared to decrease over time for women first diagnosed in the 1970s and 1980s compared to those diagnosed more recently.

In September charity CoppaFeel! launched a campaign urging younger women to get to know their bodies as part of a drive to raise awareness of breast cancer.

The Know Yourself campaign came after Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding, 39, died from breast cancer earlier this year.

Sarah Harding arriving at the 2013 Pride of Britain awards at Grosvenor House, London Image: Sarah Harding died from advanced breast cancer earlier this year

The singer revealed last year the cancer had spread to other parts of her body.

The charity said young people often do not even realise they are at risk of breast cancer, even though early diagnosis can save lives.

While breast cancer is much more common in older women around 5,000 women under the age of 45 are diagnosed with it every year in the UK.

Anyone who is concerned about breast cancer can call Breast Cancer Now’s free Helpline on 0808 800 6000 to talk to one of their expert nurses.