It is often said that cancer does not discriminate and this is certainly true when it comes to breast cancer. More than 226,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, according to the American Cancer Society. Although the majority of those women will be older than 40, it’s estimated that approximately 13,000 of them will be 40 or younger.

Yes, breast cancer affects women of all ages, as well as their families, friends and medical providers. At 20 years old, I already know this to be true: Four of my female blood-relatives have been diagnosed with breast cancer. You could say I have a good chance of being diagnosed.

Even as a young woman, I must pay attention to these warnings and understand that I have no special immunity because of my age. Cancer is not biased. At the age of 18 I started taking precautions. I think it is very important that every woman keep up with her health and seek out information. That way, if something does happen, you will be prepared to take the next step instead of wondering, “How could this happen to me?”

Breast Cancer Screenings

The women in my family start getting mammograms much earlier for obvious reasons. While many women get their first screening around the age of 35 to 40, I got mine at 20. And although I believe in getting screened for breast cancer, I have also learned that it’s important to consider the potential risks associated with these screenings.

For example, there is the issue of screening efficacy. While a majority of test results will be accurate, there are cases where a false-negative result means a delay in needed treatment. False-positive results, meanwhile, can turn a woman’s life upside down, causing fear and stress, which themselves can cause physical harm.

Additionally, for women like me who start getting screened before age 30, there is the risk of exposure to cumulative amounts of radiation.

Given all these considerations, it’s vital for younger women to talk with their physician about any family history of breast cancer, and the potential pros and cons of regular screenings.

Another thing I’ve learned on my personal health quest is that younger women typically face a different type of breast cancer. In addition to biological and chemical differences, the breast cancers found among younger women may be more aggressive and have higher death rates, research has found.

There also are statistical variations based on race and ethnicity (for example, research shows that African-American women younger than 45 are more likely to develop breast cancer than white women in the same age group), as well as based on behavioral risk factors such as obesity and alcohol consumption.

Obviously, a family history of the disease increases an individual’s risk of developing breast cancer. In fact, the risk is estimated to double if your mother, sister or daughter has had breast cancer. Indeed, women are at greater risk of breast cancer even if their father or brother has had breast cancer. (Breast cancer is approximately 100 times more common in women than in men, according to the American Cancer Society.)

Lots of Help Available

For younger women looking for resources and support related to breast cancer, the Young Survival Coalition (YSC) is an excellent place to start. The international organization was founded in 1998 by three women who had been diagnosed with the disease before age 35.

The YSC also advocates for more research on breast cancer in young women and educates about the importance of self-awareness. Importantly, it also offers access to a community of young women who are all going through the same thing, and who can love and support each other through the most difficult time in their life.

Talking about breast cancer can seem a difficult and scary proposition – but it doesn’t have to be. The more informed you are about the potential risks, and the more aware you are of your own body, the better able you’ll be to take charge of your health and deal with any crisis that may arise. And always remember, you are not alone.