Young Women Can and Do Get Breast Cancer
Medha’s story Age at Diagnosis: 27 & 38
My first diagnosis came when I was 27. I recently earned my Master’s in Public Health and was working for the state of Ohio as an epidemiologist focused on disease prevention. I was involved with its nationwide efforts to discover more about how HIV was spreading and what could be done from a public health perspective to curtail and prevent it. In 1990, there were a lot of mysteries surrounding the disease, and antiretroviral drugs were not yet available. It was a very intense if not exciting time to be working in my field.
Of course, I was not expecting to have my own health scare. Shortly after I was married in 1992, I noticed what felt like a lump in my right breast. The lump was small, just one centimeter and after my biopsy, the doctor recommended I watch it and have it re-checked. My father, who is a pathologist, did not like that recommendation. He was from the school of thought that it’s better to just have it taken out, not to give it time to morph into something. The second opinion I sought was from a colleague of my father’s, a pathologist who’d only known of a handful of women diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 30. I had a lumpectomy, which revealed I had ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) stage 0 with clear margins after the tumor removal. At the time in 1993, the standard of care was tumor removal and optional radiation as treatment. Since my tumor was small and my margins were clear, my doctor did not recommend radiation.
Having the cancer “cut out” was the end of my cancer story, as far as I was concerned. I spent the next 10 years focused on working, having children and raising my family. My husband and I had four biological children, and cancer had ceased to be a concern or part of my life until my last child, Sejal, was born in 2005. One day I was breastfeeding her just as I had done with my other three kids, when I noticed a change in my right breast.
At my next Ob/Gyn checkup, I mentioned my concern. My doctor immediately sent me for more tests. I was subsequently re-diagnosed at age 38 with invasive ductal carcinoma stage 1. This time, the standard of care had changed and hormone therapy was suggested in addition to surgery. The recurrence was in the same (right) breast as before, so I decided to have a mastectomy with reconstruction, followed by chemotherapy and hormone therapy, which were recommended by my doctors.
Since I was going to have surgery, I needed to stop producing milk. I was still breast feeding fulltime and had a difficult time with the emotional implications of being forced to stop feeding my baby this way. Breast feeding was not only something I saw as good for my child’s health, but it was a time of bonding with my children.
Having to stop breast feeding immediately not only impacted my child, who was not happy with the new turn of events, but caused me great sorrow as well. On top of normal postpartum hormonal issues, I was dealing with feelings of guilt that I would not be able to give my fourth child the same attention and care that I provided to my other three children Jaya, Nikhil and Kieran.
With my first breast cancer diagnosis, I had the mindset that the cancer was gone, let’s get on with it. After my second diagnosis and treatment, I decided I needed more support. I reached out to my local Komen affiliate and participated in Race for the Cure®. It was at this event that I noticed a sign for a group supporting young women who breast cancer. I didn’t know any other young women who had experienced what I had, and I wanted to learn more. After talking for a while with the woman at the booth, I found out that not only could she connect me with other young survivors, but the group needed help writing grants to secure funding to help local young survivors … and I just happened to have experience doing just that!
Seven years later, I continue to give back to my community, working hard to educate healthcare providers and the general public that young women can get breast cancer — not only can they get breast cancer, but when they do, the circumstances are unlike those of their older counterparts and they need different support. This desire to be a driving force in helping my community better understand the needs of young women facing breast cancer has led me to expand my work from volunteering with YSC to accepting a job working for the organization as the its new North East Regional Manager. The position will focus on educating health care providers and community organizations about the free resources and educational materials developed by YSC to make sure that no young women ever has to face breast cancer alone.