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Breast cancer in younger women: Diagnosis and treatment

Explore issues around diagnosis, treatment, pregnancy and support. If you’re a younger woman with breast cancer, please don’t feel isolated – we’re here for you.

1. Diagnosed as a younger woman

Breast cancer is not common in younger women. It’s estimated that around 5,000 women are diagnosed aged 45 or younger in the UK each year. 

Being told you have breast cancer might come as a huge shock and can feel very isolating. It can be particularly unexpected because of your age.

You may not know much about breast cancer and feel unprepared to make decisions about your treatment. Having breast cancer at a young age often involves making choices about your future sooner than you would have otherwise. At times you can feel like you’ve lost control over what’s happening in your life and feel isolated, anxious, angry and frightened. These are all common feelings. However, everybody responds differently and you can have some, all or none of these feelings at different stages of your diagnosis and treatment.

You may want to read our information on how you may feel being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Feeling isolated

You may find that you don’t see other people like you at the breast clinic which can make you feel alone and have difficulty coping with the diagnosis and making decisions about treatment. This can be particularly hard if you’re single or don’t have anyone you can talk to. We have information and support that can help you make the right choices for you and feel less isolated.

Although it's rare, some women are diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant or shortly after having their baby. 

Find out more about breast cancer during pregnancy.

Telling other people

The thought of telling people about your breast cancer might make you feel anxious, and you may worry about how they’ll react. It’s likely to be a shock to them, particularly as they didn’t expect it to happen to someone of your age.

You may have no experience of serious illness, or you may still be coming to terms with the shock of your diagnosis. Talking openly about your cancer and your thoughts and feelings can be difficult, especially at first, but it can make it easier for the people around you to offer help and support. You may prefer to only tell a few close people, or ask others to help you pass the information on. Who you tell and how you tell them is up to you.

You might be the first person among your family, friends or work colleagues to be diagnosed with cancer and those close to you might struggle to accept what has happened to you. People can react in various ways. For example, a parent or partner might constantly offer help, advice and support, even if you’d like some space or time alone.

Read more about telling family and friends.

You don’t have to cope alone with your feelings, our helpline is on hand to help you talk through your diagnosis and can offer information and support - simply see the top or bottom of this page.

You can find out more about these issues in our booklet Breast cancer in younger women: coping with a diagnosis at 45 or under.

Telling your children

If you have children, deciding how and what to tell them can be very difficult. It’s probably best to be open and honest as it can be less frightening for them to know what’s going on, even if they don’t fully understand. 

2. How is breast cancer in younger women treated?

Most younger women are recommended a combination of treatments. Your treatment team will consider many different factors when deciding the best treatment for you.

  • Surgery is often the first treatment for women with breast cancer. It aims to remove the cancer with a margin (border) of normal breast tissue to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back in the breast and try to stop any spread elsewhere in the body. Find out more about the different types of breast surgery
  • destroys cancer cells using anti-cancer drugs. Chemotherapy can be given before surgery or after surgery and before radiotherapy
  • uses high energy x-rays to destroy any cancer cells
  • Hormone therapy drugs block the effects of the hormone oestrogen on cancer cells. They’re only used if your breast cancer is hormone receptor positive. The most common drugs used in premenopausal women (who have not yet reached the menopause) are tamoxifen and goserelin (Zoladex)
  • Targeted therapy is a group of drugs that block the growth and spread of cancer. They target and interfere with processes in the cells that help cancer grow. The most widely used is trastuzumab. Only people whose cancer has high levels of HER2 (HER2 positive), a protein that makes cancer cells grow, will benefit from having trastuzumab
  • Ovarian suppression involves removing the ovaries or stopping them from working – blocking the effect of the hormone oestrogen on cancer cells
  • Bisphosphonates – are a group of drugs that can reduce the risk of breast cancer spreading in post-menopausal women. They can be used regardless of whether the menopause happened naturally or because of breast cancer treatment. 

Side effects of treatment

Breast cancer treatment can cause a number of side effects. Some are temporary and go away once treatment ends, while others are more long-lasting. Some side effects of treatment have a very specific impact for younger women. Chemotherapy and treatments aimed at blocking the effect oestrogen has on breast cancer cells can cause a number of issues. These include:

Find out more about the side effects of breast cancer treatment.

3. Fertility, pregnancy and breast cancer treatment

4. Younger women with a family history of breast cancer

Having breast cancer at a younger age may point to a family history of an altered breast cancer gene. Around 5% of women with breast cancer have inherited an altered gene. The most common inherited altered genes associated with breast cancer are BRCA1 (BReast Cancer1) and BRCA2 (BReast Cancer2). Inheriting an alteration in another gene called TP53 (tumour protein p53) also increases the risk, although this is much rarer.

Depending on certain features of your cancer diagnosis, you may be offered a referral for an assessment to find out if you’re eligible for genetic testing. However, most young women with breast cancer don’t have an altered gene.

5. Support for younger women with breast cancer

Being diagnosed with breast cancer as a younger woman may mean that you don’t meet anyone in the same situation as you. We have information and support that can help you feel less isolated.

Younger Women Together 

The face-to-face and online events for Younger Women Together and Younger Women with Secondaries Together give tailored support and the chance to meet people who understand what you’re going through, in a space that’s just for women aged 20-45.

You can find out more about Younger Women Together, and Younger Women with Secondaries Together, in the 'Find support' section at the end of this page.

Meet others who have been there

You can speak to one of our trained volunteers through our Someone Like Me service - see the 'Find support' section at the end of this page. We can put you in touch with someone who has also experienced what it's like to have breast cancer as a younger woman. If you don’t want to talk on the phone, some of our volunteers are available via email.

You can ask questions and exchange tips with other younger women on our forum.

You may find it helpful to join the private Facebook group, set up by younger women with breast cancer, Younger Breast Cancer Network

Contact a nurse

You can also call our free helpline to talk to one of our nurses. If you don’t want to talk on the phone, our nurses are also available via email. Please see below.

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Quality assurance

Last reviewed in July 2020. The next planned review begins in July 2023.

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Someone Like Me

You never have to face breast cancer alone. Find somebody who understands what you're going through with Someone Like Me.

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Support services

Younger Women Together

Younger Women Together gives you the chance to meet other women aged 20-45 who understand what you’re going through.

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Younger Women with Secondaries Together

If you're a younger woman with secondary breast cancer, we're here for you. Meet other women who understand and get tailored support.

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