Age as a risk factor
Dr. Robert Paley, radiologist at the center, said the most important factor in determining risk is age.
"Age trumps all. Your age increases your risk by a factor of 30, density is a factor of five, and if your mother had it, it's a factor of two," Paley said. "Yet, the average woman thinks that family history is the most important factor."
Though the risk for contracting the disease increases with age, the cancer can be more deadly when it develops in a younger person. Deb Kirkland, nurse navigator at Samuelson Breast Care Center, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 when she was 32. Now she helps newly diagnosed breast cancer patients with support education and resources. She says that the cancer is more aggressive in younger women.
"Older women tend to be getting mammograms, so typically it's caught earlier and is easier to treat. Their survival rate is greater," Kirkland said. "We see more younger women than we used to. We don't know if it's because of awareness and we're detecting more, or if more women are actually developing the disease younger."
In women younger than 40, the tumor has a higher likelihood of being estrogen receptor negative, meaning it cannot be treated hormonally and can potentially be more dangerous. Kirkland said it can be difficult to find the disease in younger women.
"We don't really have effective screening tools for women under 40 because their breasts are more dense," Kirkland said. "It doesn't always show up in a mammogram. It's like looking for a polar bear in a snow storm."