Hannah Powell-Auslam of La Mirada, California, had surgery this month to check her lymph nodes, just in case the breast cancer had spread.
Taylor Thompson of Little Rock, Arkansas, also had an aggressive form of breast cancer, one that has a 98 percent chance of returning. It required surgery in June.
They’re two young women fighting breast cancer. Or rather, two girls: Hannah is 11. Taylor is 13.
While Taylor and Hannah’s cases are rare, they’re extreme examples of a troubling trend emerging with breast cancer, medical experts say. Younger women are getting a disease that usually strikes around menopause—and no one knows why.
“The breast is a very sensitive, vulnerable organ,” said Dr. Marisa Weiss, founder of Breastcancer.org, a breast health Web site. “The breast is the only organ in men and women that is formed after you’re born.” Most of the breast forms during adolescence, she said. “It’s while organs are formed that they are most vulnerable to changes and insults.”
Breast cancer could theoretically occur at any age and for either gender.
“You have breast tissue, so at any point, if you have that tissue in your body, it can become cancer,” said Dr. Jennifer Litton, an assistant professor in the department of breast medical oncology at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Litton found that in women with the gene mutation BRCA1 and BRCA2, which is linked to breast cancer, the disease is diagnosed six years earlier than the previous generation. The cause remains unclear.
“Maybe women who have a family history, they were getting screened earlier, or having more breast self-awareness,” she said. “It could be something hormonal or environmental that’s causing women to have breast cancer earlier… that certainly is a big area of interest.”
But cases of breast cancer occurring in the 20s, teens and tweens are outliers, said Litton, who works with young patients. Only about 7 percent of breast cancer cases occur in patients under the age of 40.
Taylor’s diagnosis startled her family. They have no history of breast cancer.