There has been an alarming increase in the number of younger women with aggressive, advanced breast cancer. That's the finding of a new national study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Local experts are seeing it in South Florida too.
At age 26, Valerie Bunt, of Hollywood, had a double mastectomy.
"I didn't think that breast cancer really happened to people in my age group," Bunt said. "I had my daughter at 25, and I breast fed for the first six months and shortly after I stopped breast feeding I noticed a small pea-size lump."
Bunt went to a doctor, who advised her it was probably a swollen milk duct and to come back in four to six months if it grows. By the time she was diagnosed, the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.
Her oncologist is Dr. Carmen Calfa at Memorial Regional's Breast Cancer Center who is seeing an increasing number of younger patients.
"They tend to have a higher chance of being aggressive they grow fast they don't expect them," said Calfa.
Another one of her patients, Gwen Smith was 36 when she found a lump in her breast.
"They saw that it was already spread to my liver and to my bones, my spine so it was stage four cancer then," she said.
According to Calfa, at Memorial Health System, 22 percent of the breast cancer patients being treated are under the age of 40.
At what age should women start get mammograms?
"The general recommendation is no screening before age 40. We cannot afford to miss the patients that should start screening earlier, and we cannot tell the patients before 40 no matter what you feel in your breast its OK, breast cancer doesn't happen in young age, because it does," Calfa said.
Smith doesn't have a family history of breast cancer but now her daughter does, and will need to start screening in her mid-20s. The rule of thumb is children of breast cancer patients need to start getting mammograms 10 years before the age of their mother's diagnosis.
Bunt encourages young women to do self exams and to realize breast cancer can strike at an early age.
"I have a 3-year-old daughter now who I just want to watch grow up. That's all that matters to me," Bunt said.