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How Young Can You Get Breast Cancer?

Melissa Papaj Photography

When Chrissy Turner was 8 years old, she was putting on her pajamas and felt a hard lump under her right nipple that was painful to the touch. Though doctors thought a simple round of antibiotics would do the trick, Chrissy's mother insisted that she have an ultrasound. The results were unbelievable—Chrissy had secretory breast carcinoma, a rare type of cancer afflicting one in 1 million people.

After her shocking diagnosis, Chrissy bravely underwent a mastectomy last December. Now, at 9 years old, she's in remission (undergoing breast scans every three months) and joins 2.8 million other breast cancer survivors in the United States. (Arm yourself with knowledge: 9 Things Every Woman Should Know About Breast Cancer.) While other kids her age are thinking about playdates and homework after school, speaking out on cancer awareness is what's on her mind. "It's important to be aware of your body no matter what age you are," Chrissy told People. "If you ever find a lump, don't wait. You should go to a doctor have it looked at."

To say how incredibly rare it is for someone so young to have breast cancer is an understatement. "While it's important for us to all hear about it, we should remember that it is very unlikely to happen," says Jaime Knopman, M.D., cofounder of Truly, MD and reproductive endocrinologist with CCRM NY. Although children do get cancers, breast and gynecological types of cancers are not common in kids, she explains, as these are usually associated with older women. "In fact, while there are several risk factors for breast cancer—such as family history, genetic mutations, reproductive history, diet, alcohol consumption, and exercise—age is the strongest risk factor," she says.

While one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, the majority are postmenopausal women over the age of 70. In fact, less than 5 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer are under the age of 40. "Although the breast tissue is not fully developed until puberty is completed, a small amount of breast tissue is present in females at birth, and so theoretically breast cancer is possible at any age," explains Joanna Perkins, M.D., a physician with the Cancer and Blood Disorders Program at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. "Men also have breast tissue and so, although it too is very rare, men are also at risk for breast cancer."

Most organizations—such as the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists—recommend that women with no risk factors for breast cancer get their first mammogram when they turn 40. But even that recommendation has become controversial, with some screening organizations such as the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force altering that advice to say that the first mammogram should be done at age 50, with screenings every two years after that. "Screening tools—whether it's a mammo, a pap, a colonoscopy—are designed to look at the people that would be most likely to get a disease," says Knopman. "If you screen populations that are not likely to get a disease, you increase the rate of false-positive results, which can lead you down a path of testing and interventions that are not necessary. And while you may think what's the big deal if you have a test that you didn't need, sometimes complications arise—and they can create a lot of unnecessary fear and anxiety."

Hearing a story like Chrissy's, it can be difficult not to worry despite the minuscule odds. "In general, it is a good idea to educate both girls and boys at a very young age to be aware of their bodies, and to talk with their parents and doctors if they notice any concerning changes," says Perkins. It's better (and safer) to share too much than not enough with your doctor. "You want to make sure your ob-gyn knows everything about your past and the past of your family members in terms of their cancer history," says Knopman. "This information can shape your screening paradigm; you may need to start with mammograms in your 30s or you may need MRIs in your 20s...it all depends on your risk factors." (Did you know certain kinds of workouts can reduce your breast cancer risk?)

A GoFundMe page has been set up by Chrissy's mother's best friend to help pay for her medical expenses. You can also visit Chrissy's Alliance on Facebook to learn more about her fight not only to beat her cancer but to raise awareness (and hope) for this rare disease, as well.

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