Breast cancer in your 20’s

Sarah O’Regan was only 23 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer — twice! Here is her story as well as some tips for checking yourself and places to turn for support or to lend a hand.

Running is a passion for Sarah O’Regan and when she headed to Vancouver after university, O’Regan decided to lace up and take part in triathlons. While running along the west coast, she began to notice pain in her chest and found it difficult to breathe, so she went to her doctor to get to the bottom of it. Thinking the breathing problem was asthma, O’Regan’s results were far from what she expected. At 23 years old O’Regan was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer.

“I was sitting there waiting for an inhaler and then they tell you: you have cancer.”

The pain O’Regan was experiencing was caused by a tumor on her sternum bone that was affecting her ability to breathe. O’Regan’s first treatment included rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

The chances of getting breast cancer in your 20s is 1 in 1,800. But Dr. Maureen Trudeau, breast oncologist and Provincial Head of Cancer Care Ontario’s Systemic Treatment Program, advises women of any age to get to know their breasts so they can detect when something is out of the ordinary.

“[Women] need to know that it can happen so if there are changes that are persisting, have them evaluated by your doctor,” says Trudeau. “Don’t ignore things that are worrisome … it’s always better to get it checked out.”

Breast cancer under 35 tends to be more aggressive depending on the characteristics of the tumor. Young women are more likely to have a triple negative breast cancer (estrogen receptor, progesterone receptor and HER-2 negative), which is more aggressive than other tumors.

“One of our goals is to make sure that the public and the health care communities know that young women get breast cancer too. Yes, the numbers are smaller, but the needs are different, the needs are real,” DeCoteau says.

Detecting breast cancer in young women can be difficult as a young woman’s breasts are dense. Trudeau says many women who have “lumpy bumpy breasts” may actually have benign tumors or cysts. You know your body better than anyone so be persistent when something feels wrong.

“If you feel something is wrong, persist. Don’t be deterred. Those are the women I see. The women who have been told ‘Oh, it’s nothing’, for a year and a half and finally it’s something.”

Know your breasts

Rethink Breast Cancer is an organization aimed at helping young people who are concerned or affected by breast cancer. After losing both her mother and grandmother to breast cancer, MJ DeCoteau, director of Rethink wanted information on breast cancer but everything she came across was geared towards older women or contained confusing statistics or medical jargon. Rethink Breast Cancer was born as a way to bridge the information gap with edgy and hip awareness campaigns like their target t-shirts that encourage women to target their breast health.

Trudeau stresses that it is important for women to know their breasts by regularly touching and looking to detect any changes. Rethink Breast Cancer promotes easy-to-understand methods of staying on top of your breast health. For instance, easy tips like TLC – Touch. Look. Check. are some of the simple ways that the organization is putting breast awareness on young women’s radar.

Breast cancer support

One main issue DeCoteau hears from women is a sense of isolation. Many women ask “Why me?” and feel alone as cancer in your 20s is a rarity among many of these women’s peers. But women can also feel isolated among other women who are receiving treatment because many programs are not age specific.

Despite treatment, O’Regan wasn’t out of the woods as the breast cancer reoccurred about a year later. Going through another battle with cancer, O’Regan notes that the journey can be lonely.

“You can feel alone in your 20s when you have it because it’s that stigma that it’s an older woman’s disease,” says O’Regan.

Some of the various ways Rethink Breast Cancer is bringing women together is through their support initiatives like the blog Breast Cancer. Now What? Another program is Support Saturdays, designed for families to learn and discuss the disease with professional facilitators. Support Saturdays is not only flexible, it’s also family-friendly so parents can leave their kids with child care facilitators while they engage in support sessions.

While support is one main drive that helps women fight their battle with cancer, another way women conquer the disease is by giving back through their innovative ideas.

Because O’Regan was living in Vancouver when she was first diagnosed, many of her friends in Toronto wanted to help out, including her friend, Amanda Blakley who decided to host a fundraiser called the Booby Ball. In 2008, the Booby Ball teamed up with Rethink Breast Cancer and created the Booby Innovation Grant. The Booby Innovation Grant helps create new programs while empowering women by giving them a sense of meaning and an outlet to give back to the cause.

O’Regan is now proudly celebrating not only her 30th birthday but her five year anniversary of being cancer-free.

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