Young Women Can and Do Get Breast Cancer
Caitlin’s story Age at Diagnosis: 26
I was a typical 25 year old. I had been out of school for four years. I was focusing on my career as a mental health therapist and planning to move in with my long-term boyfriend. I hadn’t realized how quickly life could throw a wrench in my well-laid plans.
A month before my 26th birthday, my boyfriend felt a lump in my left breast that he said was not there the month before. I knew there was a strong family history of ovarian cancer on my mother’s side, but I didn’t know it had a connection to breast cancer. In my mind, young women didn’t get breast cancer. I ignored it.
A year before this my maternal aunt had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I was upset by the news. I was close to my aunt; she’d always been such a strong woman and an important part of my life. At my next annual exam, I told my gynecologist about my aunt’s diagnosis and the lump my boyfriend found. The doctor examined the mass and ordered an ultra sound which lead to a biopsy and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The tumor was 2 centimeters. I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), along with lymph node invasion.
My left breast was filled with cancerous tumors. My parents wanted me to get a second opinion to confirm the diagnosis and go to a cancer center that they hoped would be best-suited to handle my treatment. My boyfriend and I put our plans to move into together on hold. The new plan was for me to stay at home where my mother could be my primary caregiver. I had to face the fact that I was about to undergo a serious surgery and I would need my parents help with recovering from my mastectomy.
As we started to discuss my treatment options, the subject of fertility preservation came up several times. At first, I just wasn’t able to focus on it. I wanted to know how we were going to fight the cancer. When a third doctor mentioned it, I thought it might be time to give the subject some attention. I was only 26 after all and had hoped my future would include biological children. While I was learning about my options and deciding what to do, I was advised that frozen fertilized eggs (embryos) would have a higher future success rate then a non-fertilized frozen egg. I needed to process this new part of the puzzle.
My boyfriend told me he would donate sperm and when I looked at him quizzically, he said “I’m going to marry you someday, so I’ll donate the sperm.” Though I was a little taken aback by his statement, we went ahead and did in vitro fertilization (IVF) and froze embryos before my treatment began.
When I started treatment, I had a hard time being there for my patients. I wasn’t fully available to them due to having my own personal struggles. I started an online blog, to journal my experience, and I took a six month leave of absence to focus on finding the support I needed. My family was amazing, and my boyfriend couldn’t have been better, but I needed to find other women who were facing this. I hoped to find another young woman with breast cancer to talk with.
I went online and found Young Survival Coalition (YSC). Through its website I found some really wonderful women in their 30s living in New Jersey, and we began to have lunch dates that served as our personal support group meetings. Last year in 2011, we attended the YSC Philly In Living Pink gala to support the organization and enjoy a night out with other survivors. At the event, there were people talking about the upcoming 2012 C4YW, an annual conference for young women. They said it was going to be in New Orleans, Louisiana. A few of us decided we wanted to go to the conference.
When I got to New Orleans, I was surprised by the number of young women there who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. There was a meet up for 20-somethings I planned to attend. In typical fashion, I was late. When I arrived, there was a sign on the table that said, “gone to the bar.” At the bar was a group of 20-somethings who were all hitting it off. They invited me in, and we’ve all been great friends ever since.
I’m now back at work and living with my boyfriend. I was able to find the support and friendship I needed among this group. It’s helped me find the perspective I needed, and it continues to give me hope. Breast cancer has shown me the importance of my personal health and that when I am strong, both physically and mentally, I am better able to help those that depend on me. Though I would not have asked for this experience, it’s definitely made me more aware of the importance of being 100% available to my patients … and now I can be.