Young Women Can and Do Get Breast Cancer
Kara’s story Age at Diagnosis: 35
My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at 37 years old. When she began to show signs of the disease she went to her doctor, who was certain that breast cancer was not something that happened to young women. Her doctor instructed her not to worry about it, assuring her they would keep an eye on it.
And they did — they watched lumps grow and new ones develop, until finally doing something about it. In the early 1980s, breast cancer was not understood to be a young woman’s disease. At the age of 39, my mom died from breast cancer that had metastasized to her brain and lungs.
When I started going to the gynecologist, my doctor’s approach was very different based on my mother’s medical history. My doctors saw me as having a high risk of developing breast cancer and treated me accordingly. I began having mammograms in my 20s, and my doctor kept a careful watch on my breast health.
I moved happily into my 30s being aware and not overly worried about my breast health. I never even did self-exams. I was too afraid, though I knew I should have been doing them. I was building a successful career in a fast-paced and high-stress field as an economic consultant. I married and had two children. On my 35th birthday, we decided to try for a third child. Three days later I found a lump.
I was taking off a sports bra and accidentally brushed up against it. I was immediately concerned. The next day I saw my doctor; the following day had an ultrasound and mammogram and, the day after that, a biopsy. When the technician conducted the biopsy, I was told the mass showed no signs of a cancerous tumor. “Don’t worry, it is not breast cancer,” the doctor told me, encouraging me to go on a planned vacation with my kids and in-laws to Disney World.
With that reassurance, we were all relieved and off we went to visit Mickey and Minnie. On the second day of our trip, approaching the gates to Animal Kingdom, my cell phone rang. “You have breast cancer.” Not the words I was expecting, not that anyone ever is. I was in the happiest place on earth, being told I had cancer. It would take over a month to determine how bad (or good) my prognosis was. I was devoid of much information, expecting and fearing the worst and having lived it as a child.
I was grateful my husband and in-laws were right beside me when I got the call. My husband took the phone to decipher what was going on, next steps, who needed what reports, which surgeon to call. My in-laws were able to take my two young children for the day, while my husband and I digested this information.
When we got home, I sought out several opinions before deciding what my treatment plan would be. I hadn’t wanted genetic testing performed earlier in my life. I knew I was at a higher risk, and because I wanted to have a family first and also for insurance reasons, I left that test undone. But now that I knew I had breast cancer, I wanted to know everything I could.
My tests came back positive for the BRCA1 gene, and in the midst of it I somehow gained some closure about my mother’s death. Somehow it gained reason rather than tragedy. My test result encouraged my older sister to get tested, and we discovered she was also positive for the gene.
Knowing I definitely had the gene mutation, I decided the best course of action was to have a bilateral (double) mastectomy, a hysterectomy and an ovariectomy (removal of my ovaries). My husband and I make a decision not to pursue fertility options since we already had two beautiful children, and I didn’t want to run the risk of potentially passing this gene mutation on further. I had been blessed in so many ways; contentment was key to my personal preservation.
Throughout this process it was very important to me to be open and honest with my family, especially my children. When my mother was sick, I felt kept in the dark probably because no one knew what was actually happening. I was confused about what was happening and often scared as a result. I didn’t want my boys to be scared. I wanted to give them enough information so they could make sense of what was going on around them and know they could ask questions and they didn’t need to be afraid.
My husband owns a landscaping business and our boys really enjoy, being and working outside. So we told them that mommy had a “rock” – one they could actually feel because it was hard to the touch. They understood that rocks and weeds were bad for flourishing gardens and likewise were bad for my body as well. We told them the doctors needed to remove mommy’s rock, just like we weed and remove debris from gardens, so that healthy cells could grow back. When I moved on to chemotherapy after finding out I had stage 1, triple negative breast cancer, we told the boys that I needed some medicine to makes sure I didn’t get any more rocks.
Before my diagnosis, I led a very stressful life. I didn’t focus on my overall health and I ate a less-than-fantastic diet. Since treatment, I take much better care of myself, follow a healthy diet, exercise and do lots of yoga. I let my body tell me what it needs and do my best to listen.
Throughout this journey, my sister and I kept asking what we could do to take something positive from our experience to help others. We discovered a great need for a bra for women who have had mastectomy with reconstruction. So, we wrote a patent and hired a wonderful designer to create a new line of bras that are functional, comfortable and beautiful to wear after reconstruction, called braGGs.
We are just starting out, but I am enthusiastic about the prospects of owning a company, working with my sister and being able to help other women move beyond treatment feeling beautiful, comfortable and confident after breast cancer.