Breast cancer death rates in women under 40 rising for first time since 1987

OAK BROOK, Ill. — Breast cancer death rates in women under 40 are creeping up again for the first time in more than 30 years, scientists report. The number of young women dying from breast cancer had been steadily falling since 1987, but after 2010 this figure has increased slightly.

Statistics have shown a decline in breast cancer death rates for women of all ages since 1989. But from 2010 to 2017 mortality rates for women aged 20 to 39 increased by a “non-significant” 0.5 percent a year, scientists say.

Now, they predict the figure would continue to rise.

The decades-long decrease for all women in the U.S. is attributed to improved treatment and increased rates of screening mammography use starting in the early to mid-1980s. In this new study, researchers determined trends in female breast cancer mortality rates by 10-year age groups based on recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Analysis showed that from 2010 to 2017, breast cancer death rates decreased between 1.2 percent and 2.2 percent a year for women in each age decade from 40 to 79 years. But this increased by 0.5 percent a year for women 20 to 39 years of age, researchers report.

‘Significant’ increase in breast cancer death rates predicted

Breast cancer is the most common non-skin cancer and the second most common cause of cancer deaths in women in the U.S., accounting for 30 percent of all cancers in women. Although most invasive breast cancers occur in women aged 40 years and older, 4 to 5 percent of cases happen in women younger than 40 years, scientists say

“It’s clear that mortality rates in women under 40 are no longer decreasing,” says study lead author Dr. R. Edward Hendrick, a clinical professor from the Department of Radiology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora, in a statement. “I estimate that in two to three years, the mortality rate will be increasing significantly in these women.”

The changing mortality rate in younger women is likely related to an increase in distant-stage, or metastatic, breast cancers. The analysis of invasive breast cancer diagnosis found distant-stage breast cancer rates increased by over 4 percent a year since 2000 in women 20 to 39 — a much higher rate of increase than in women ages 40 and over.

Regular mammographies in younger women may be prudent

Unlike breast cancer treatments, imaging recommendations used in detecting breast cancer early on vary by age, experts say. Women 40 and older are offered screening mammography for early breast cancer detection, and over half of these women say they receive regular screenings.

Screening is not done for women under 40 unless they are known to be at high risk for breast cancer.

According to the researchers, the continued decline in death rates in women over age 40 may reflect the benefit of regular screening for women in this age group. The difference in mortality trends for women under 40 and over 40 is more evidence for the essential role mammography screening plays in decreasing breast cancer deaths, the study authors write.

“Our hope is that these findings focus more attention and research on breast cancer in younger women and what is behind this rapid increase in late-stage cancers,” adds Dr. Hendrick.

Researchers plan to continue studying these trends to learn more about why mortality rates have stopped declining in younger women. Scientists hope the findings will raise awareness of breast cancer in younger women and spur research into the causes behind the change in rates.

The new study was published in Radiology.

SWNS writer Chris Dyer contributed to this report.