Young women can and do get breast cancer. Single women, married women, women with kids, even pregnant women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.
While a breast cancer diagnosis is devastating at any age, younger women face some unique challenges.
In 2012, it is estimated that there were more than 2.9 million women living in the United States with a history of invasive breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. The median age at the time of breast cancer diagnosis is 61. About 20 percent of breast cancers occur among women younger than 50. Of that number, about 5 to 7 percent are women younger than 40.
‘But I have a baby at home’
Younger women with cancer are often just starting to build careers, like registered nurse Ginger Diven.
Married with a 7-month-old son, Diven was 36 when she was diagnosed with a fast-growing, estrogen-positive form of breast cancer. “I went from zero to stage three just like that,” Diven said.
At home getting ready for a Christmas party while holding her son in her arms, the baby wiggled against her breast, “and I though, ‘Ouch, that hurt,’” Diven said. Then, like many young women, she put it out of her head and continued on with her life.
“Many young women ignore the warning signs of breast cancer because they just feel like they’re too young,” said Deborah J. Cornwall, who has interviewed almost 100 women with breast cancer and woven their stories into a book, “Things I Wish I’d Known: Cancer Caregivers Speak Out.”
About a week later, the same thing happened again. This time, Diven laid down on her bed, raised her arm above her head and examined her breast. What she felt shocked her to the core. “It was big, really big,” Diven said of the tumor.
Because of a strong family history of breast cancer, Diven had been undergoing annual mammograms since the age of 30. For the previous two years, she was going every six months because of a suspicious calcification. Then she became pregnant and had a baby. This time, the radiologist saw the tumor right away. Because it was feeding off the hormones and estrogen in her body, the tumor grew aggressively, which is very common in younger women, Cornwall said.
“People diagnosed who are younger than 40 tend to have more aggressive forms of cancer and face higher reoccurrence risks than people who are older,” Cornwall said.
They also face a specific kind of anxiety.
“The first words out of my mouth were, ‘But I have a baby at home,’” said Diven, who is a registered nurse and now works in the breast surgery department at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in the suburbs of Chicago. Even though “cancer runs rampant” in Diven’s family, and she “felt bound to get cancer at some point,” this was just too early. “I was so young,” Diven said.
Page 2 of 3 - “This was a time in my life when I was supposed to be happy and starting a new life. My husband and I were married about two years; we were practically still newlyweds. We had just gone through the process of building and buying a new home, and I had a baby son.”
She also had a supportive husband, a strong sense of faith and a will to fight. But it was never easy. Diven’s constant thoughts of her own mortality led to an obsession of having her husband take photos of her with the baby “so he could remember me,” she said.
She went through a bilateral mastectomy, a full course of chemotherapy, radiation and reconstruction. At a time when Diven should feel beautiful, young and full of life, she lost both her breasts and also her long, red, naturally curly hair. “But my husband said, ‘I want you around for a long time,’” Diven said. “We fought it together.”
Pregnant and a positive diagnosis
It was almost inconceivable that Jennifer McFadden could have breast cancer. The avid biker and hiker was just 37 years old, pregnant and in her third trimester.
“People don’t realize you can get cancer so young. No one thinks about it happening to younger women,” McFadden said.
About two years ago McFadden began experiencing “a lot of pain in my right breast behind the nipple.” Her OB/GYN doctors felt it was probably just swollen or infected ducts. When the pain continued, an ultrasound was performed.
“They saw stuff going on but said not to worry. The pain became worse and more frequent though, so I went to my long-term general doc” to get something for the pain, McFadden said.
Immediately, her personal doctor knew something was not right and sent her to a specialist who took a bilateral incision. When McFadden received a call the next day, she knew it wouldn’t be good news.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer during pregnancy is very rare, with current estimates ranging from 1 in every 1,000 to 1 in every 10,000 pregnant women, according to the American Cancer Society.
“The pregnancy was doing a good job hiding the estrogen-based tumor,” McFadden said.
Since the pregnancy was already considered high-risk, McFadden’s team was in place and ready to respond.
“I had a great team that pulled together like 13-14 people including the oncologist,” McFadden said. Together with her husband and support team, McFadden decided her and her baby’s best option was to deliver her baby at 36 weeks, then start cancer treatment.
Son Eli “is fantastic, a miracle. He was 6 pounds, 12 ounces and healthy,” McFadden said.
On the other hand, the shocking diagnosis came out of left field.
Page 3 of 3 - “It’s the last diagnosis you would expect to get in the middle of life. It was a different perspective for sure,” McFadden said. “I’m supposed to have decades ahead of me. It was really rattling.”
In addition to myriad resources for people fighting breast cancer, there are special sites available for younger people, such as the Young Survival Coalition, www.youngsurvival.org, and Stupid Cancer, www.stupidcancer.org.