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Published February 27, 2013, 11:30 PM

Advanced breast cancer cases up in young women: Researchers mystified by dramatic increases

More young women are being diagnosed with advanced, metastatic breast cancer than were three decades ago, according to a U.S. study, with the metastatic breast cancer rate in particular rising about 2 percent each year.

By: Reuters, INFORUM

More young women are being diagnosed with advanced, metastatic breast cancer than were three decades ago, according to a U.S. study, with the metastatic breast cancer rate in particular rising about 2 percent each year.

Yet the overall rate of cancers in that group is still small. One in 173 women will develop breast cancer before she turns 40, said researchers whose report appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association – but the prognosis tends to be worse for younger patients.

The study, led by Rebecca Johnson at Seattle Children’s Hospital and University of Washington, found that the rate of metastatic breast cancer in particular rose about 2 percent each year between 1976 and 2009 among younger women.

“We think that the likelihood is that since this change has been so marked over just a couple of decades, that it’s something external, a modifiable lifestyle-related risk factor or perhaps an environmental toxic exposure, but we don’t know what,” Johnson said.

One possibility is that overeating and lack of exercise are driving up early-life metastatic breast cancer rates, Johnson added. Or, the use of hormonal birth control could play a role, she said.

But Johnson also pushed for more research into the potential effects of hormones in meat or plastic in bottles, for example.

Johnson’s team analyzed data from cancer registries run by the National Cancer Institute. As expected, they found that the number of early breast cancer diagnoses increased among middle-aged and older women during the study period, likely due to widespread screening.

The only other change in cancer incidence was among the youngest women, between ages 25 and 39. In that group, the number of women diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer – which has spread to the bones, brain or lungs – rose from one in 65,000 in 1976 to one in 34,000 in 2009.

More of the increase appeared to be in cancers that are sensitive to estrogen, which is “comparatively fortunate,” the authors note, because those cancers are somewhat more responsive to treatment and have longer average survival rates in general.

Still, metastatic cancer is the most dangerous kind, with fewer than one-third of women surviving at least five years after diagnosis, Johnson’s team wrote.

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