Shanghai may be the mainland's most dynamic and cosmopolitan city, but it also has the highest breast cancer rate. About 4,000 women a year in the city develop the disease. What's more, said Shen Zhenzhou, professor at the Shanghai Cancer Centre, 15 per cent of new patients are under 35. And more than half of the new cases contracted the disease before reaching menopause, compared with 30 per cent in the United States. 'In recent years, I've seen many young women developing breast cancer in their early 20s, with the youngest only 17,' Shen said on the sidelines of last week's Shanghai Breast Cancer Forum. Zheng Ying, of the Shanghai Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said the average breast cancer rate on the mainland was 18.7 per 100,000 women. But in Shanghai, Shen said, it was over 70 per 100,000, compared with 17 in the 1970s. Many factors are blamed, including genetics, late marriages and unhealthy eating habits and lifestyle. 'Many young people exercise too little and eat too much,' Shen said. 'As the only children of their families, they are pampered and eat plenty of fat. What's more, at a young age, some consume so-called health-enhancing products, which have high levels of oestrogen.' Huang Jialing , a chief nurse in the centre's breast cancer surgery department, said she was surprised at the soaring rate. Her department has designed a programme to offer young patients free medical and psychological advice. A 32-year-old woman wearing a wig, who declined to give her name, had an operation in August. She said she had never imagined she could get breast cancer. 'I am scared of the future because it's possible that my disease will recur or induce other cancers,' said the woman, who works for an advertising agency. She tries to stay as low-profile as possible because she says people shy away from anyone with cancer - particularly a woman with breast cancer. 'When you tell them you've got breast cancer, their first reaction is to look at your chest. The feeling is similar to standing naked in public.' If there is a bright side, it is that women with breast cancer survive longer than patients with other types of cancer, Huang said. But they also face more discrimination from society than other cancer patients. 'Some dare not go out, and they even move or change jobs to avoid any former contacts,' Huang said. A survey by the centre of 5,000 breast cancer victims in Shanghai found that in the 18 months after their operations, 26 per cent became depressed. Thirteen per cent were so seriously depressed that they sought clinical treatment. A lot of them told Huang they expected to divorce. She said many opted for celibacy, wrongly believing sexual activity harmed their health.