At the age of 35 I was too young. The cells in my body, however, didn’t get the message. For myself, my family and my friends, it was truly shocking. We often think of breast cancer as a disease that effects older women. We’re wrong. While small minorities both, breast cancer does, in fact, effect young adults, and people of both genders. While certainly not an “equal opportunity” disease, here are some sobering statistics complied by the Young Survival Coalition(YSC):
- Of the expected 190,000 breast cancer diagnoses projected for 2009, the American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that over 18,500 of them would be in women under the age of 45.1
- Women ages 15 to 34 and 35 to 54 die more frequently from breast cancer than any other cancer.2
- Compared to older women, young women generally face more aggressive cancers and lower survival rates.1,3
The numbers are disturbing. So too is the unique experience of breast cancer treatment for young adults. Beyond what older, typically post-menopausal women face, just a few of the unique challenges encountered by many young women include:
- Access to affordable health care, as well as life-long caps on health care benefits and the fear of pre-existing conditions.
- Understanding and finding appropriate support through the many decisions related to treatment.
- Facing and projecting the impact of aggressive and disfiguring surgeries.
- The challenges of dating during and after breast cancer treatment.
- Negotiating the symptoms of treatment-induced menopause and the chance of a premature end to fertility.
- Concerns about body image and changes in sexuality.
There are so many facets to surviving breast cancer, and the complications resulting from being diagnosed at a young age are often not even within the awareness of the mainstream breast cancer world, even among some doctors. A quick perusal of the community forums on the YSC website lead us to even more questions, both medical and social:
- In a world where we are not even sure we understand the potentially unique biology of their cancers, how can we make the best possible treatment decisions?
- With the emergence of new hormonal therapies, what does it mean to put women into menopause for the sake of treatment?
- How do we ensure that they are offered the chance to preserve their fertility? Do we even know how to advise them about the risks related to fertility procedures? What are the implications and risk factors for subsequent pregnancy?
- How do you manage an emerging career while enduring treatment?
- What does it mean to face 30, 40, even 60 years with metastatic disease?
- How do you explain it all to young children?
Bringing these issues to the forefront, and giving voice to their very private concerns, and a forum in which to share are all vital to those who feel isolated and alone as they face and fight their disease. Moreover, the empowered voices of this small, impassioned, activist group of young men and women, who rightly refuse to accept the breast cancer status quo, may well be the ones to make a difference.
1 American Cancer Society. (2009). Breast Cancer Facts and Figures 2009-10. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society, Inc. Available at: http://tinyurl.com/42y7r32
2 National Cancer Institute. (2006). 2006 Fact Book. Bethesda, MD: US Department of Health and Human Services. Available at: http://tinyurl.com/3bk7qgr
3 Partridge, A.H. et al. (2009). Breast Cancer in Younger Women. In J. Harris (Ed.), Diseases of the Breast (pp. 1073-1083). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.