Breast Cancer Is a Different Experience for Younger Women

It’s October, which means those familiar pink ribbons are on display to spread breast cancer awareness. This is an issue that cannot be overstated. In 2015, it’s estimated that more than 230,000 new cases will be diagnosed among U.S. women, and about 2,300 among U.S. men.

Awareness campaigns focus on early detection, which increases the chances of survival. Yet for the up to 7 percent of women under age 40 who are diagnosed each year, there is no effective detection tool, which makes timely diagnoses uniquely challenging.

Years of research have uncovered various risk factors, but the two key ones are being female and being older; most diagnoses and deaths occur in women who are at least 50 years old. This explains why, when a woman under 40 is diagnosed, her cancer is often much more advanced. Breast cancer in young women and teens is often more aggressive than it is in older women, and younger women die at a higher rate than older women.

I experienced these occurrences firsthand when I worked as a temp in the office of one of the top breast cancer surgeons in the country. Every day, I scheduled consultations and surgeries for women who were facing advanced stages of the disease. While I was asking for necessary information, these women would often share the most intimate details of their lives.

A few patients would call me just to talk. Some made me laugh when they discussed the new breasts they were going to get (which some older women saw as a silver lining). For most of the young women, though, it was their future family — a difficult subject with no easy answers — that was often the topic of discussion.

Many breast cancer treatments can affect fertility. Survivors often have to take medication for many years which, when coupled with normal age-related fertility decreases, makes pregnancy all but impossible. A woman’s choice to freeze her eggs has to be weighed against the risk of delaying cancer treatment, because it could take several months to go through the process of extracting eggs.

During my time working in the medical office, I learned how tenuous the future was. I was the same age as many of the young women who called, so I found common ground when discussions turned to an upcoming concert or movie. I also heard about their supportive (and not-so-supportive) significant others, and we shared our dreams about the future. These conversations sometimes put me behind on my work, but I knew it was the right thing to do when they thanked me for listening as we said goodbye.

Mammograms are critical for finding breast cancers in localized and early stages. We hope this story will inspire you to get screened at a facility near you. To schedule a mammogram in your area, see the following:



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