Young Women Can and Do Get Breast Cancer
Jennifer J.’s story Age at Diagnosis: 27
In 1999, I had been married for four years to my college sweetheart and we were busy building our careers. We just found out we were expecting and were both thrilled and nervous about being first-time parents.
When I was five months along, I attended a P.E.O. (Philanthropic Educational Organization) meeting, where the October program was focused on breast health. As part of the presentation, a breast model was circulated and we were asked to see if we could feel any masses. When it was my turn, I felt one lump in the model. Apparently there were five, and I learned I hadn’t pressed hard enough to find the other masses. A few days later, I pressed more firmly in the shower during my own self-exam and was not prepared for what I found in my left breast. I wanted to make sure I’d felt a mass, and asked my husband, Matt to feel it. He confirmed my finding. A few days later, I had an appointment at my obstetrician’s office and showed her the lump.
Luckily, my doctor took it seriously. With no family history and only being 27, the odds were in my favor, but my doctor wanted to schedule a sonogram to make sure. The sonogram showed the mass was not a fluid-filled cyst, but a solid mass. I immediately had a mammogram (they protected the baby with an apron) and I was referred to a breast surgeon for an excisional biopsy. I had the biopsy at the end of the week and had to wait three long days (over a weekend) to get the results. Waiting was worse than actually being told I had breast cancer.
On November 27, 1999, three days before Thanksgiving, the surgeon called to say I had breast cancer. I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) and my cancer was estrogen negative (ER-), slightly progesterone positive (PR+) and Her 2 positive. It was so frightening; all I could think of was “Am I going to die?” “Will the baby be okay?” I couldn’t understand how a baby could be thriving in my body, while cancer was trying to kill me.
We consulted with several doctors before making a final treatment decision. I decided to have a unilateral (single) mastectomy and then begin chemotherapy. Because of the pregnancy, I wasn’t able to undergo radiation, which would have been necessary with a lumpectomy. I also didn’t want to be under anesthesia for longer than necessary. Since my breast was enlarged from the pregnancy they weren’t able to match my regular breast size. I opted not to immediately begin reconstruction.
Because of the aggressiveness of my tumor, I had to start chemotherapy during my pregnancy. At the time, there were only 40 cases in the national registry of women who had been treated for breast cancer while pregnant. All of the babies had been born healthy but, in many cases, prematurely. Thankfully, I tolerated the treatments well. I continued to work with reduced hours right up until my delivery. The day after I finished my last dose of chemo, I unexpectedly went into labor. Our son, Parker, was born five weeks early, but he was completely healthy and had a beautiful head of hair, our sign that he had not been affected by the treatments.
My husband and I had always hoped for two, maybe three, children. After my treatments, we weren’t sure how my fertility had been impacted. It had been three-and-a-half years since my diagnosis and we had just decided to wait one more year to be certain I was doing well before we again, when I found out I was unexpectedly pregnant.
We were excited, but anxious! My surgeon was sweet and helped put me at ease. Early in my second trimester, I found another lump, this time in my right breast. My surgeon thoroughly checked it out and it turned out to be nothing. She was impressed I actually found it, because it was so small. Once we were past that scare, I was able to enjoy the pregnancy. Our daughter, Emma, was born in April of 2003. I was able to breast feed Emma from my remaining breast, and it was good to see my breast as something positive again. With the addition of Emma, we felt our family was complete.
In 2004, after much thought and research, I began the process of reconstruction. I had a prophylactic (risk-reducing) mastectomy of my right breast, I wanted to do everything I could to prevent a recurrence. I opted for bilateral expanders followed by implants. My goal was to have the reconstruction completed before my 10th wedding anniversary because Matt and I were taking our first trip to Hawaii to celebrate our anniversary as well as my five-year mark with no evidence of disease. We returned to Hawaii five years later to celebrate my ten-year mark and we renewed our wedding vows on the beach, with Parker, Emma and my parents.
I am almost 13 years out from my cancer diagnosis but am reminded of it every day. In 2008, I left the corporate marketing world to follow my passion and now work for Young Survival Coalition (YSC); helping young women facing this disease know that they are not alone and that there are other women who have taken this journey before them. My advocacy work is focused through YSC and the National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC)’s mission to end breast cancer before my children ever have to worry about it.