Although breast cancer, the most common cause of cancer in women in Western society, is a relatively rare disease in young women, it is a diagnosis that impacts most severely on the young woman’s life and future, extending to her family and society as a whole.

To exacerbate matters, research shows that breast cancer has more aggressive biological features in young women with a more advanced disease at diagnosis and a poorer prognosis (especially in the < 30 years age group) than older premenopausal patients. (Literature defines breast cancer in a young woman (or early onset breast cancer) as occurring in a woman less than 35 years of age.

In Africa and other developing countries, the breast cancer burden is increasing and poor reporting and data availability may underestimate the exact numbers. The average age of diagnosis may be younger for women in developing countries than for women in developed countries. African patients are more likely to be premenopausal at diagnosis and the breast cancers tend to be more advanced at presentation than in other population groups in a country such as South Africa.

The choice of surgical treatment in early onset cancer depends on various factors. Young age is an independent risk factor for worse outcome regardless of whether a patient had a mastectomy or breast conserving therapy. Breast conserving treatment is an option for treatment of breast cancer in a young patient given the correct indications and that the patient is fully informed about the high risk of local recurrence.

General breast awareness among women of all age groups in Africa should be promoted. This includes how to perform self-breast examinations and to seek urgent medical attention when a breast lump is discovered. In time, given the resources, good screening programmes on this continent to detect breast cancer at its earliest presentation would be the ideal.

Information extracted from:

WM Kruger MBChB, BSc(Hons) in Reprod Medicine & JP Apffelstaedt MMed(Surg), FCS(SA), MBA Professor in Surgery (2007) Young breast cancer patients in the developing world: incidence, choice of surgical treatment and genetic factors, South African Family Practice, 49:9, 18-24, DOI:


Reach for Recovery is a national Breast Cancer Support Organisation. Visit their website at for contact details or contact the National Manager at for more information.