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Routine screening with mammograms is recommended for older women but not those younger than 40.

Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, the American Cancer Society’s deputy chief medical officer, said the results support anecdotal reports but that there’s no reason to start screening all younger women since breast cancer is still so uncommon for them.

He said the study “is solid and interesting and certainly does raise questions as to why this is being observed.” One of the most likely reasons is probably related to changes in childbearing practices, he said, adding that the trend “is clearly something to be followed.”

Dr. Ann Partridge, chair of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advisory committee on breast cancer in young women, agreed but said it’s also possible that doctors look harder for advanced disease in younger women than in older patients. More research is needed to make sure the phenomenon is real, said Partridge, director of a program for young women with breast cancer at the Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

The study shouldn’t cause alarm, she said. Still, Partridge said young women should be familiar with their breasts and see the doctor if they notice any lumps or other changes.

Software engineer Stephanie Carson discovered a large breast tumor that had already spread to her lungs; that diagnosis in 2003 was a huge shock.

“I was so clueless,” she said. “I was just 29 and that was the last thing on my mind.”

Carson, who lives near St. Louis, had a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and other treatments and she frequently has to try new drugs to keep the cancer at bay.

Because most breast cancer is diagnosed in early stages, there’s a misconception that women are treated, and then get on with their lives, Carson said. She and her husband had to abandon hopes of having children, and she’s on medical leave from her job.

“It changed the complete course of my life,” she said. “But it’s still a good life.”

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Online:

JAMA: http://jama.ama-assn.org

CDC: http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/index.htm