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Breast cancer rates for younger women rising; Chicago area patients urged to act

Breast cancer rates are on the rise among younger women
Breast cancer rates are on the rise among younger women 03:41

CHICAGO (CBS) – Breast cancer is rising among younger women.

It's a trend puzzling doctors, but they have theories. CBS 2's Marybel Gonzalez explored those theories and what you can do to best protect yourself and your loved ones.

At age 39, there was nothing physically wrong with Marissa Lanzito.

"I didn't have any symptoms," she said. "I didn't have any family history."

She had only an intuition that something wasn't right.

"I know if something keeps coming back to me and keeps nudging me, I have to listen," she said.

She took her concerns to her doctor and asked for a mammogram.

"And she said, 'You don't have any family history. We don't feel anything. You don't feel anything. It's unnecessary, and your insurance isn't going to pay for it,'" Lanzito said.

But she insisted.

"She said, 'I'll give you the order, but you have to hang onto it until you turn 40,'" Lanzito said. "So I did. They did find a tumor and took a biopsy, and it did wind up being positive for breast cancer."

Lanzito is part of a growing trend. A study published this month in the Journal of American Medical Association showed that more people under 50 are getting cancer. Breast cancer saw one of the highest increases in the number of early-onset cases from 2010 to 2019. That number increased by nearly 8%.

"We don't really know the answer to why. We know this is happening," said Dr. Julie Wescler, a breast surgical oncologist at Cook County Health.

Wescler added, "There are multiple theories as to why, but we don't have solid evidence. Some people talk about lifestyle factors, environmental contributions."

Wescler sees patients after they've received a diagnosis.

"It's rare in your 20s, still uncommon in women in their 30s," she said. "Obviously, as you get older, your risk increases, but that's not something we can definitely say that you're too young to have breast cancer."

The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force currently recommends women begin getting mammograms at age 40, an earlier age than its prior recommendation of screening at age 50. But if more women are getting cancer at a younger age, why aren't they getting screened?

"We really can't screen an entire population of women because of cost, because of availability of resources, and because the incident of breast cancer is not high enough to warrant doing that kind of screening," she said.

What is available is a breast cancer risk assessment starting at age 25, said Dr. Lisa Stempel, a radiologist at Rush University Medical Center.

"We can do that with statistically validated models where we ask women a bunch of questions and go through the model to find out what their lifetime risk of breast cancer is," Stempel said.

Gonzalez: "What are some of those questions?"

Stempel: "Family history, hormonal history, the age of menstruation, the age of first pregnancy."

These patients who rate high are referred to more testing. The earlier women receive a diagnosis, the better the outcome.

"If we can find breast cancer in stage zero to stage one, 95% cure rate," she said.

Maria Bermudez was reluctant to get a mammogram after she noticed some bumps. At 33, she became the first woman in her family to receive a breast cancer diagnosis, but she caught it early.

She and fellow survivor Lanzito and doctors are asking women to take charge of their health.

"Speak up for yourself, and don't be afraid to," Bermudez said. "I know it's difficult."

"You are your number one advocate as a patient. You and your family. So if you feel like something is different, something is wrong, then you have to listen to yourself and seek out your doctor and talk about that."

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