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. 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.
Janice Freeman, Georgia Tech
Diagnosed: Age 22
The first time Janice realized there might be something wrong was in December of 2007. Halfway through her senior year of college and immersed in projects and homework, she delayed visiting her doctor until April of 2008. Three weeks before graduation, at 22 years old, she received the news that she did, in fact, have breast cancer. “It was supposed to be a really exciting time,” she says. “I spent that summer doing chemo.”
Unlike Adrienne, Janice's doctor advocated for her health from the beginning. She brought up the issue with her gynecologist, who could tell something wasn't right, but only went forward with further tests as a precautionary measure. So Janice went to a breast specialist and had a biopsy, something that, for many girls, takes weeks or even months to convince doctors to do.
After graduation in May 2008, she started a full-time job the following month while undergoing chemo at the same time. She was admitted into the graduate program for civil engineering at Georgia Tech, but chose to defer until the spring, knowing that she needed to undergo surgery and that the recovery time would interfere with school. Though chemo was finished by the time Janice started grad school, she still faced 12 months of hormone treatment, which, she says, definitely had an impact on her studies. “Professors don't always understand that you're having one of those days where cancer is getting you down,” she says.
Treatment had a clear impact on Janice's social life, too. Often, she felt stuck between adulthood and being a kid again. “I was doing the big kid thing, but being taken care of by my parents and being babied,” she says. “I wanted to live my life and have a good time and go out, but I couldn't.” Fortunately, her school friends were completely supportive and willing to go through the process with her, even offering homework help when chemo left her brain less than focused.
Janice still hasn't been able to grasp the full scope of what she's learned from being a breast cancer survivor, but her work with the Young Survival Coalition has helped her make her story count. “It helped me realize how important it is to have a cause in some way,” she says. Being surrounded by other girls who battled cancer at a young age helps put life into perspective, too. “You will rationalize ‘til you're blue in the face,” she says of other young women who avoid seeking a diagnosis. But in the end, seeking an answer is the only way to work towards a cure.
Update: Janice finished her master's degree in civil engineering at Georgia Tech right on schedule, and she also got married! She is still involved with the Young Survival Coalition and loves that she gets to benefit from the support that the organization gives her. Janice also continues to recieve clean bills of health each time she sees her doctor.
"Thinking about my health can be difficult," she says. "It can be a challenge to remind myself that I am healthy and that every new feeling is not something bad. But with the help of good doctors and a great family, I manage to get through it."
Elissa Bantug, Georgetown University
Diagnosed: Age 23
For Elissa, college graduation was met with a series of health concerns that, at first, were not taken seriously by doctors. At 21, she suspected something was wrong and knowing that her mom battled breast cancer when Elissa was 12 years old, she didn’t want to take any chances. But instead of addressing her concerns, a doctor told her to come back in a year. But after a year and a sonogram, her doctor still insisted there was nothing wrong. “I knew my body enough to realize something wasn’t right,” she says. “I needed to find a doctor who listened to those concerns.”
Some time passed and Elissa returned to the doctor for other health concerns. At this point, she demanded a mammogram and had to call six centers before finding one who would address her concerns. Finally, she was diagnosed with breast cancer at 23, but the questions had only just begun. “I was worried that chemo could affect my fertility and I very much wanted to have kids one day,” says Elissa. So she committed to staying as informed as possible throughout treatment, balancing breast cancer and graduate school at Johns Hopkins. Often the doctors seemed unsure about how to react to someone so young, especially with her concerns about having children.
Not wanting cancer to interfere with her life and not giving in to extending her school time, she brought her laptop to treatments and tried to keep everything in balance. It quickly became clear that her friends were at a loss in terms of how to react to Elissa’s situation. Many of them didn’t know the right things to say, especially to someone their own age who was dealing with a disease they associated with older generations.
Now, Elissa keeps herself busy with a number of advocacy groups. She became the coordinator for a breast cancer survivorship program at Johns Hopkins and sits on the Susan G. Komen Young Women’s National Advisory Panel. She is also a part of the Lance Armstrong Young Alliance and speaks about breast cancer on college campuses, making sure other girls become aware enough of their bodies to recognize what is normal and what isn’t. Elissa was diagnosed again at 25, but continues to spread the importance of awareness and advocacy. Being in tune with her own body was enough to prove doctors wrong and get the treatment she needed to battle the disease.
Here are a few more breast cancer facts and advice courtesy of 15-40 Connection:
- Typically, over 11,000 women under the age of 40 are diagnosed with breast cancer each year
- Cancer moves faster within this age group
- You don't need to have a family history of cancer to be at risk. The disease is sometimes completely random
- If you have symptoms like pain or fatigue for two weeks, push away the embarrassment and go to the doctor
- Some college health centers are excellent, while others are sub-par. Advocate for yourself if your instincts say something is wrong.