You’re too young for breast cancer, my doctor told me in a most confident tone when I pointed out the lump in my right breast.
“Besides,” he continued. “You don’t have any of the risk factors. You’re not obese and you have no family history. Plus, you breastfeed your baby. It’s probably just a plugged duct. This isn’t breast cancer.”
I love my doctor. He has been a faithful guardian of my health for nearly a decade. Moreover, he recently helped me deliver my precious baby, my most beautiful son, my gift from God. He has always had my best interests at heart, and I readily place myself in his care.
But he dismissed my concerns based on statistics (most lumps are benign and most young women do not get breast cancer) and the fact that he couldn’t feel what I could. I knew in my heart that this lump was something bad. Having massaged away plugged milk ducts in the shower nearly every day since my son was born six months prior, I just knew this lump was different. Yet, I wanted so much to believe him. After all, I was only 32. Who ever heard of a 32-year-old getting breast cancer? Breast cancer is for old women. So, I clung to my doctor’s assurance, put aside my misgivings and ignored the lump.
It wasn’t until six months later, at my next routine check-up, that my doctor felt the lump himself. (Note to all women: You have the benefit of being able to feel tissue from both the outside and inside. Your doctor does not.)
Still sure of his assessment, but, perhaps, hedging his bets, he sent me for an ultra-sound. An ultra-sound led to a mammogram (a most amusing experience if you are lactating, I found) and a mammogram led to a biopsy. This led to a lumpectomy, which confirmed without a doubt that it was cancer. And, ultimately, a breast cancer diagnosis led to a mastectomy and several months of aggressive chemotherapy.
Despite all this, I am alive and here to tell you: Young women can and do get breast cancer. Forget the risk factors. They are not causation and nearly 80 percent of women who get breast cancer have no family history. Make no mistake; if you have breasts (and yes, this means men, too), you can get breast cancer.
Young women diagnosed with breast cancer face dying from the disease much more often than their more mature counterparts. Women over 40 have the benefit of recommended routine mammography, which can identify cancer in its earliest stages, giving these women the greatest chance of beating the disease. For those of us under 40, our youthful breasts seem to conspire against us. The firm, dense tissue hides lurking abnormalities from the mammography machine’s x-ray eye and makes the films very difficult to read. This is why mammography is not always a very effective diagnostic tool for us.
We don’t know what causes breast cancer, so we cannot prevent it. For a young woman, the most important thing she can do to survive a breast cancer diagnosis is conduct monthly breast self-exams. A young woman needs to get to know her breasts intimately. Once she knows the topography of her body, she’ll know which lumps and bumps are normal and can differentiate them from those that are not.
Furthermore, a young woman must be her own best health advocate. If you find a lump, insist on a diagnosis. FYI “You are too young” is not a diagnosis. If you can point to a specific area of your breast, you can request a diagnostic test a mammogram, ultrasound or biopsy.
Admittedly, the under-forty breast cancer crowd is not large. But we exist, and we face a whole different set of issues than do older women with breast cancer. Not only do we face a higher mortality rate (which some attribute to the more aggressive nature of young women’s cancers and an often later stage of diagnosis) but we also have fertility issues. Many are the young women who cannot conceive because chemotherapy has thrust them into early menopause.
Then there are the studies and clinical trials. By far and away, most of them focus on women over 40. We die of this disease more often than older women, yet we are not studied with the same frequency and intensity.
And, let’s not forget support groups. While I found the women in the group I attended to be wonderful and supportive as I cried and cried, it was difficult for me to relate to them. They were all at least 15 years older than I am. Some were more than 35 years older.
How unfair, I thought selfishly. They lament their disease, but they have had much fuller lives than me. I have a 12-month-old son and fear that I will not be able to help him grow to be a man. What if I die in the next few years and he doesn’t ever know who I was and how very much I adore him? And what of my husband, who, at 23, watched as cancer, attacked and then consumed his father in less than a month. Is he destined to be a widower with a young son before his 35th birthday? He certainly thought so. Oh, yes. I would give anything to be these older women dealing with this disease.
For me, salvation came not in the form of a support group, but from a group of activists’ The Young Survival Coalition. These women, all diagnosed with breast cancer in their 20s and 30s, are striving to make the voices of young women with breast cancer heard.
It is our mission to educate young women about the very real risk of breast cancer and how to protect themselves, to meet with legislators to direct attention and funding to our needs, and to virtually jump up and down in front of the medical community to get them to study us and stop dismissing their young patients who present with breast lumps. This group is exactly what I and many other young women living with breast cancer need. It is our way to affect change and give young women a fighting chance against breast cancer.
I told every doctor that I saw that I wanted nothing more than to dance at my son’s wedding. It became “and continues to be” my ultimate ambition. I focus on this daily when tears threaten as I consider my fate and as I help other young women deal with their diagnoses.
My mother promised me, when I was just beginning to come to terms with my disease that I would indeed dance at my son’s wedding. “You and I are going to do the silliest dance at Jason’s wedding,” she told me. “Even if we both have to use a walker to do it.”
I’m holding her to it. I plan to do the chicken dance.
By: Tracy Pleva Hill, as shared on http://www.youngsurvival.org
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