Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer diagnosed in America. While you probably associate this disease with adults, the truth is, children have breasts, too.
Fortunately, most breast lumps in children are benign tumors that don’t cause harm and aren’t dangerous. When cancer develops in the breast in children, radiation therapy and surgery to remove the tumor might be required.
Breast cancer occurs when cancer cells grow in breast tissue. The disease is most commonly found in women.
The risk of breast cancer increases with age, with the highest risk between ages 70 and 74 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cases in children are rarer but not impossible.
Often when children have tumors in their breast tissue, the tumors aren’t cancerous. Instead, they’re what is known as fibroadenomas.
Fibroadenomas are benign and don’t cause symptoms. Children with fibroadenomas still need to be monitored because, rarely, they can grow and become cancerous.
Breast cancer in children is rare, and many of the symptoms can be caused by other, less serious conditions.
However, if your child has any of the following symptoms, they should be examined by a medical professional as soon as possible:
- a lump in the underarms, around the nipples, or anywhere in the breast area
- a change to the shape of the breast area that’s not associated with puberty or weight gain
- skin at or around the breast that looks uneven, dimpled, or puckered
- skin at or around the breast that’s red, scaly, itchy, or swollen
- a nipple that has turned inward
- blood or other fluids coming from the nipple
Remember: Typical breast development during puberty may result in asymmetry between breast size, but this is common.
Cancer cells in the breast cause breast cancer in children. The causes can vary and are often unknown.
In many cases, cancer cells found in the breast are likely the result of a cancer in another location. This can happen as a result of several cancers more commonly found in children, including:
If one of these cancers spreads to a child’s breast tissue, it can result in cancer of the breast.
Many children who develop breast cancer have a history of another cancer, but that’s not always the case. While there’s no way to 100 percent predict breast cancer in children, there are a few known risk factors.
These risk factors include:
- previous radiation treatment to the chest or breast for another cancer
- a parent or sibling who previously had breast cancer
- an inherited change to BRCA1, BRCA2, or another gene that can cause breast cancer
The treatment for cancer of the breast in children varies and will depend on the tumor or type of cancer.
Children with benign fibroadenomas don’t usually need treatment. Instead, they’ll be carefully monitored for changes that might indicate concern, such as changes in size or characteristics of a mass. In many cases, the fibroadenomas will disappear without any treatment at all.
Children with malignant breast cancer will need treatment. They’ll receive care from a pediatric oncology team.
Treatments normally include:
- radiation therapy to target and kill the cancer cells and stop the growth of new cancer cells
- surgery to remove the tumor
New therapies, including targeted drug therapies to attack cancer cells without harming other cells in the body, are an option. Treatment will also depend on the child’s overall health and whether other cancers are present.
The pediatric oncology team will help develop the appropriate plan for each child.
Most children with breast tumors have fibroadenomas. Often, these disappear on their own. Fibroadenomas aren’t harmful or dangerous unless they mutate into cancerous tumors — which is rare, especially in children.
A child or teen with a fibroadenoma will be watched to ensure it remains harmless. Doctors might do a biopsy of the tissue to ensure it’s benign.
For children with malignant breast cancer, the outlook can vary.
Just like most other types of cancer, controlling the spread makes a huge difference in the outcome. The goal is always for tumors to be treated or removed without spreading.
In general, the outlook for children with all cancer types is getting steadily better.
As of 2021, there’s an 84 percent 5-year survival rate for children diagnosed with any type of cancer.
While there aren’t statistics on the exact survival rates of children with cancer of the breast, the 5-year survival rate for breast cancer in adult women is 90 percent.
The faster children get treatment for cancer, the better the odds will be. Cancer that hasn’t spread is always easier to treat and cure.
So if your child has any issues concerning their breasts, ask your doctor about it as soon as you can.
Breast cancer in children is very rare, but it can happen. When children have tumors in their breast tissue, they’re normally benign tumors called fibroadenomas.
A child with fibroadenomas will need to be monitored but won’t need any treatments.
Occasionally, children will have malignant breast tumors. In this case, radiation treatments or surgery is needed.