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How age affects a woman’s risk for breast cancer
Blanca Rubio performs a mammogram on a 65-year-old patient at Evanston Hospital in Evanston, Illinois. The risk of breast cancer can increase with age. (Heather Charles/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

The risk of developing breast cancer increases as women age, but the largest increase in risk happens when a woman enters her 60s.

Fewer than 1 percent of women develop breast cancer in their 30s. That number becomes 3.56 percent for women in their 60s and 3.82 percent for women in their 70s, according to the National Cancer Institute

Women should start getting annual mammograms when they turn 40 and conduct their own periodic self-exams in between, according to Dr. Andrew Johnson with the Longstreet Clinic.

Women receive physical breast exams during annual gynecological exams, and are encouraged to do monthly self-exams, according to the Longstreet Clinic.

However, women with a family history of breast cancer may benefit from genetic testing to determine if they are predisposed to breast cancer and can work with physicians to take preventative measures. MRI scans may be used in addition to mammograms for women who are at a higher risk.

“If it was a young woman who had a strong family history of breast cancer, or a genetic mutation that increased her risk of breast cancer very high, then we could discuss methods of breast cancer risk reduction with medications or surgeries,” Johnson said.

For younger breast cancer patients, there may be added social pressures if other women their age do not relate to what they are going through, Johnson said.

“They’re just in a completely different time in their life, where it comes as a huge shock. They’re expecting a time in their life where they’re going out, having fun, they oftentimes have young children,” Johnson said. “The changes that come with a cancer diagnosis, including needing chemotherapy and completely disrupting your life, as well as oftentimes losing your hair, are huge changes that lead to difficult times.”

Chemotherapy can also affect a woman’s fertility, so younger patients are often referred to a fertility specialist for egg preservation if they may want to have children later, Johnson said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some risk factors for breast cancer cannot be changed, such as age, genetic mutations and family history. However, there are some steps women can take that may reduce their risk of breast cancer, such as regular exercise and limited alcohol consumption.