"We are seeing younger women with breast cancer throughout the whole region. It's the same in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, (South) Korea and Singapore," said Louis Chow, executive director of the Hong Kong-based Organization for Oncology and Translational Research (OOTR). Breast Cancer / Carcinoma of the Breast
Other than skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women. Breast cancer mostly occurs in women over the age of 50, and the risk is especially high for women over age 60. Breast cancer is also found to occur more often in white women than African American or Asian women.
"Compared to (victims in the) U.S. and Europe, we're seeing pre-menopausal women in Asia, whereas in developed countries we are seeing post-menopausal women, in their mid-50s. In Asia, we see those in their 40s and we are not even surprised to see those in their 30s," he said in an interview.
Breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer in women. In the United States, it affects one in eight women and is the second most common cause of cancer deaths in women after lung cancer.
Eighty percent of breast cancer cases occur in women over 50 in the United States. Breast cancer is rare for men.
While the median age of women stricken with the disease in Hong Kong is 52, it is increasingly seen in younger women.
Between 1993-1997, 88 cancer cases were seen in the 40-49 age group per every 100,000 of the population, up nearly 63 percent compared to 54 cases in the years 1978-1982.
But cancer cases in the 50-59 age group grew more slowly. Between 1993-1997, there were 98.5 cases per every 100,000 of the population, up just 31 percent compared to 75 cases in 1978-82.
Cases in the 30-39 age group grew 43 percent over the same period.
But while breast cancer has been extensively studied in the West, experts have little idea as to the risk factors in Asia.
"In the West, the risk factors are a very strong family history, uterine and ovarian cancers. These may also apply here, but we can't just use them," said surgeon Chow.
"We can't borrow the model from the West and put it here. We have a different genetic makeup. We have different clinical presentations especially in terms of age, we can't just borrow."
In a survey carried out in March with 1,000 women in Hong Kong over the age of 18, 70 percent of participants did not have annual mammograms, or screening for early breast cancer.
While 80 percent of those with primary education were aware that annual screening was necessary for women over 40, only 63 percent of those with tertiary education were aware of that.
"Those with more education ignore the facts of breast cancer, they are very deficient in knowledge, maybe they have no time," said Chow, who urged governments in Asia to put more resources into screening to reduce mortality rates.
Approximately 240,510 new cases of breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2007 and 40,460 women will die from it. In Hong Kong, where the population stands at nearly 7 million, 2,273 new cases were diagnosed in 2004 and 454 women died from it.