One in ten younger women who develop breast cancer first spot signs when they are pregnant or breastfeeding, according to research.
The number of women aged 45 and under diagnosed with breast cancer is thought to be on the rise – partly because more women are delaying starting a family to focus on their career, it is believed.
An estimated 5,600 new cases in this age group are diagnosed each year. Studies have suggested that the longer women delay motherhood, the higher the chance they will develop breast cancer in their lifetime.
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The average age of mothers in 2014 increased to 30, around four years higher than in the 1970s.
Research by the Breast Cancer Care charity found that among 496 women aged 45 and under who developed breast cancer, one in ten spotted signs while pregnant or breastfeeding.
Female breast cancer is strongly related to age, with almost half of all cases among those aged 65 and over. Rates rise steeply from around age 30 to 34, level off for women in their 50s, then rise further at age 65 to 69.
The number of British women diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 50 increased from 7,700 in 1995 to 10,000 in 2010. Similar statistics are not available for under-45s, but a corresponding rise is thought to be likely. Breast Cancer Care estimates that 10 per cent of all breast cancers diagnosed each year in the UK are in women aged under 45.
Scientists think that women who delay or never have children are more at risk of certain forms of cancer at an early age. This is because they are more exposed in their 20s and early 30s to the hormone oestrogen, which is thought to trigger tumour growth.
Women’s oestrogen levels fall during pregnancy and breastfeeding, which is believed to protect them against cancers including those of the breast, ovaries and womb. If they delay pregnancy, their risk of cancer at an early age may rise. Another possible reason for the numbers of cancers spotted during pregnancy and breast feeding is that women’s general cancer risk increases the older they get.
If more mothers have children at an older age, they are more likely to spot their cancer while pregnant or while nursing.
Among the women surveyed, 39 per cent went through treatment when their youngest child was aged five or under.
Some 53 per cent of those with young children felt the biggest impact of treatment was being too ill to care for them.
The biggest fear for 66 per cent of mothers was not seeing their children grow up.
Casualty actor Amanda Mealing, ambassador for Breast Cancer Care, was diagnosed with breast cancer aged 34, just after her second son was born.
She said: ‘Breastfeeding my day-old son Otis for the first time should have been special, but instead as I felt a lump in my breast I realised something was very wrong. When he was only days old I was told I had breast cancer. I was heartbroken. We had only just welcomed him into the world and now I was consumed by the fear I wouldn’t see him or his brother grow up.’
Miss Mealing, who is married to writer Richard Sainsbury, had to go through a gruelling treatment while trying to care for older son Milo and her new baby.
‘Throughout treatment I faced sickness and extreme fatigue all while trying to be there for my kids – it was totally overwhelming,’ she said. Now aged 47, Miss Mealing has made a full recovery. Samia al Qadhi, chief executive of Breast Cancer Care, said: ‘Being told you have breast cancer when you have a young family is devastating. Many mums feel they miss out on precious time with their children because they are going back and forth to hospital for treatment.
‘We urge breast cancer units to adopt our recommendations for supporting younger women with breast cancer, which include a referral to a specialist if diagnosed during pregnancy.’
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