Young women also at risk for breast cancer

By Adam Brooks
Published On: Sep 16 2011 05:04:15 PM EDT
Updated On: Oct 16 2013 10:24:11 AM EDT

istock/ftwitty

YouBreast cancer rates rise as people -- especially women -- get older.

But about 10,000 women under age 40 get diagnosed with breast cancer each year according to YoungSurvival.org..

Some survivors and the families of those who have been through a diagnosis early in life find that doctors sometimes doubt what their patients are seeing. Sometimes good comes from the early doubt, such as a young California woman who tries to keep a positive attitude as she goes through treatment and a Virginia man who became an awareness activist after he lost his sister.

Cathy White found out that she had breast cancer early this year before her 23rd birthday.

Though some groups advocate that women of any age examine their breasts regularly for changes, White says she never had. But before getting in the shower one day in February, she noticed a lump on the right side of her breast, near her arm pit.

"I don't know why I did it," she says. "I just did it."

Her mother felt the lump, too, and decided she should go to a doctor.

White was at first told it was probably related to her period, since she was so young.

Still, the doctor did a needle biopsy and said that it looked benign.

"She left me with nothing but a bruise," White says.

A month later, though, she went to a breast care center for an ultrasound, which found a second lump. Three days later, she was told she had cancer.

"My world just kind of stopped," she says. Though she knew the doctor was talking to her, she couldn't really understand the words, and could only ask if she was going to die.

Doctors told her to come back the next day when she was more under control.

"At first, I didn't believe her. I was waiting for her to say, 'We were wrong.' That call never came," White says.

When she started to hear about all the tests, scans and appointments she needed, "That solidified that 'this is real.'"

Then she was able to get a grip and realize she had to be strong. After agonizing about whether to get a double mastectomy -- as one doctor suggested -- White had a lumpectomy and started a course of six chemotherapy treatments over six months. "Chemo really makes you feel like a cancer patient," she says, because it can leave her weak and tired and makes her feel like she's not in control of her body.

"It's hard (but) I've always been really positive and try not to let the little things get me down," she says, adding that she tries to stay upbeat so others around her can, as well.

She has days where she wants to break down, but "it's just not worth it."

But cancer did allow White to think a bit more about what she wants to do with her life.

Before she got sick, she was working 40 hours a week in for a company that sells auto parts and had taken some college-level accounting courses.

But the illness has led her to think more about going to school with a particular goal in mind.

"I don't want my life to be, 'Oh, I worked in an office.'"

She says she would now like to change majors to something that would help her learn how to help others, possibly by opening a breast cancer clinic in the Philippines.

Finding Missing In Cancer

Shawn Gardner, a 41-year-old teacher from Washington, D.C., was also pushed to do something for others by breast cancer. He became a vocal fighter after his sister died when she was 26 years old.

His sister, Heather Gardner Starcher, had complained many times about pain under her arm. But doctors could not find a cause.

One day as she rolled over in bed, "the tumor popped out of her breast," Gardner says. Still, the doctor she had been seeing told her that women her age could not have breast cancer and sent her home.

She quickly got a second opinion, and the next day was diagnosed with breast cancer. Doctors said that from the size of the tumor, she could have had it for 10 years.

Still, Heather did not like that her doctor dismissed her concerns. Gardner says she wrote a letter to the doctor saying that she hoped she would never send another young woman home without checking things out thoroughly.

The doctor tried to reach Heather, but "Heather was a little stubborn" and did not want to have any more contact, Gardner says.

Watching his sister battle, Gardner formed a team in her honor for the National Race for the Cure. Initially, the goal was just to support her, not raise money.

However, the effort grew year by year, even after Heather died and their parents decided not to participate. In 2003, Team Heather raised $5,500. Now, the team raises more than $50,000 a year.

Gardner has also become a local spokesman for Susan G. Komen for the cure. The group got interested in the story, and Gardner has taped some public service announcements and testified in front of Congress.

His advocacy efforts highlight young women, but he hopes to raise broader awareness.

"I want people to just be aware of your body, of the women in your life," he says.

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