You may already know that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. What you may not realize is that breast cancer isn’t just for women in their 40s and 50s or older. Her Campus spoke with three young women who prove that this disease does not practice age discrimination.
“Breast cancer is on the rise for younger women,” says Tricia Laursen, director of 15-40 Connection, a cancer advocacy group for the younger – and most overlooked – age groups. Even more alarming, survival rates for ages 15 to 40 have remained relatively stagnant since 1975, as cancer is most aggressive in younger women.
Many of us push personal health down the priority list, buried underneath homework, extracurriculars, and that oh-so-essential social life. We rationalize that pain or fatigue and when we do pay the doctor a visit, we tend to take his or her diagnosis as the final word rather than trust our own bodies. After all, who doesn't want to hear that they're perfectly healthy? Adrienne, Janice, and Elissa, three college-aged breast cancer sufferers, could have rationalized, too. But they advocated for their health and are likely alive today because of it.
Adrienne Harlow, Purdue University
Diagnosed: Age 19
Only a month before her 20th birthday, Adrienne got the diagnosis that took half a year to discover. In July of 2007, she discovered a lump in her breast, but each doctor she visited was convinced that a college girl could never have cancer. After going through four different doctors and convincing her insurance company, she finally had a biopsy in February 2008. If Adrienne had waited another 6 months, she says her cancer would have progressed to stage four and she may not be here today. With no family history of the disease, her persistence was based on pure instinct.
After the diagnosis, she underwent a lumpectomy and started chemotherapy in April, which lasted until July. “A lot of my teachers and advisors were saying to take time off of school, but I only had a month left [in the semester]” she says. “That month was kind of a blur. I was in class one week and the next week I was going through chemo.” Between July and August, she had radiation treatments, which lasted into her fall semester at Purdue.
But balancing college and cancer treatments was a struggle. Though her hair was growing back, Adrienne still needed to travel back and forth each day for radiation and had a difficult time keeping up with friends. “I would be so exhausted that I couldn't keep up with them,” she says. “I found out who my true friends were because those were the people who really stuck by my side.”
Now on the other side of her battle, Adrienne works with Susan G. Komen, a breast cancer advocacy and support group, giving talks to college students and working to change lives by sharing her own story. She mentioned one specific college speech that she did in front of 3000 students. After her speech, countless students approached her to say they would now take their health much more seriously. And this is precisely Adrienne's goal. “I want to make this negative situation into a positive situation,” she says. “I don't want another woman to have the same thing happen to them.”
After conquering her battle with breast cancer, Adrienne is focused more on her future than the struggles in her past. This summer, at 22, she married her longtime boyfriend who she had been dating for two years at the time of her diagnosis. “I told him ‘I completely understand if you want to leave,’” she says. “He did the exact opposite and asked me to marry him.” She says that planning the wedding and having something so monumental to look forward to helped her get through. “It changed me as a person and I think anybody who gets breast cancer would say that,” she says.