Breast Cancer Is Striking more Women Under 40 than Ever Before

Why more young women are being diagnosed, and what you need to know to keep yourself safe.
Posted June 13, 2011
Cancer-free for two years, Cain holds one of the wigs she wore during chemo

When I received that fated phone call from my doctor telling me I had breast cancer, all I wanted to do was fall on the floor and cry. But first I had to go pick up my son from kindergarten.

Somewhere between the mammogram and the core biopsy, I had become one of a growing number of young women diagnosed with breast cancer. Statistics show that breast-cancer diagnoses in women younger than 40 have increased in the last decade, possibly because of improved screening methods. In 2010, the American Cancer Society predicted about 207,090 new cases of breast cancer in women; between 5 percent and 7 percent of those women will be younger than 40.

Two years ago, at age 38, I went from being a busy, self-employed freelance writer, a kindergarten reading volunteer and my 5-year-old son’s boo-boo kisser to a stage II breast cancer patient reeling from a mastectomy, 16 rounds of aggressive chemotherapy and five weeks of daily radiation treatment. Accustomed to juggling assignments, phone calls and interviews, I had to get used to letting my husband schedule my blood draws, doctors’ appointments and weekly infusions. Instead of cooking meals for my family, I accepted casseroles from friends and neighbors. And after more than 20 years of adulthood, I once again cried in my mother’s arms like a child.

While a breast cancer diagnosis at any age is devastating, younger women face unique challenges. Many of us are just ramping up our careers and raising families. Others are still dating or considering having children. My friend Nicole, diagnosed with stage III breast cancer at age 34 and unable to lift anything after her double mastectomy, had to use jellybeans to coax her toddler into his car seat. Luchie, 33, still hasn’t had a chance to become a mother. She had to abort her fetus when, at three weeks’ gestation, she was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer.

I met these women and many others like them at the Young Survival Coalition meetings at Gilda’s Club in Seattle, a support group geared toward women younger than 40 facing breast cancer. There, we shared our fears and celebrated our victories with others who had lost a breast, their hair and their dignity—but were fighting like hell to get them all back.

Diagnosing breast cancer in younger women can be tricky. Their breast tissue is generally denser than that of older women. By the time a lump is felt, the cancer is often advanced. Delays in diagnoses are also a problem, because many young women ignore the warning signs—such as a lump or unusual discharge—because they believe they are too young to get breast cancer.

On my doctor’s recommendation, I started receiving mammograms at age 35, since both my grandmothers had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Even so, I found my 5-cm. lump on my own—despite having a clear mammogram two months earlier. By then, it had spread to two of my lymph nodes. Frighteningly, this type of story is not uncommon among younger women. The mammogram remains the go-to scan, even though the technology is no match for the compact tissue often found in the breasts of younger women. MRI—or magnetic resonance imaging—can detect some cancers readily, but carries a high price tag. Many young women, like me, find their breast cancers themselves, through self-examination.

Though I did self-exams a few times a year, like many women my age, I hadn’t spent time worrying that I might have a potentially fatal disease. Luckily, two years after my diagnosis, I show no evidence of disease. But the fear of recurrence is always there.

It’s often difficult to be vigilant about my health when faced with everyday responsibilities, but it’s worth staying focused. I have a job that I love and a family that depends on me.

And my mom promises to lend me her shoulder whenever I need it.

Finding support: The Young Survival Coalition (YSC) is a nonprofit group dedicated to the issues unique to young women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease that usually doesn’t affect women until their 60s. The YSC Seattle chapter’s support group meets the first and third Wednesdays of each month, from 6:15 to 8:30 p.m. at Gilda’s Club on Capitol Hill, 1400 Broadway, Seattle; youngsurvival.org/seattle.

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