Young women: Breast cancer doesn’t care how old you are

As part of an op-ed series, FIU News shares the expertise and diverse perspectives of members of the university community. In this piece, Bethany Reeb Sutherland, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, offers her personal experience about being diagnosed with breast cancer. She recently shared her story at a Susan G. Komen event. The opinions expressed in the piece are her own.

By Bethany Reeb Sutherland

One year ago, I was 37, enjoying a successful career as an assistant professor of psychology at a large research university and celebrating the birth of my second child. Life was playing out as I had always imagined. Two weeks later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Stage 3 breast cancer.

Bethany Reeb Sutherland and son Jonah.

Bethany Reeb Sutherland and son Jonah.

How did I not notice? I was seeing my obstetrician regularly and with all the tests that I went through, there was no mention of cancer. I certainly didn’t feel like I had
cancer. How did I go from healthy mom to cancer patient so fast? It’s simple. I ignored everything I know as a researcher and listened to my instincts. I am scientific proof that cancer does not care about our statistics. It does not follow any rules. I challenge all of us to rethink how we approach this unpredictable disease.

It all started a few weeks before I gave birth. I noticed something wasn’t quite right with one of my breasts. This was easy to dismiss because breasts change during pregnancy. When my son had trouble breastfeeding from that same breast, cancer wasn’t a thought. But when my nipple inverted and the skin dimpled, I became concerned. My doctor assured me that cancer was not likely. Breast changes are normal after having a baby, he reminded me. I had no family history of breast cancer. I felt good. I am a young woman. Less than 5 percent of diagnosed cases are in women in my age group. However, he offered a prescription for a mammogram and ultrasound if I wanted it. I took it. In less than a week, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. Sometimes I reflect back on this moment and wonder how long it would have been before my cancer was detected if I went along with my doctor’s intuition instead of my own.

My story is not unique. Breast cancer in young women can often go unnoticed or dismissed by doctors because it is so rare. It can be masked by normal changes that occur in the breast during menstruation and pregnancy. Young women have dense breast tissue, which inhibits routine mammograms from being a useful screening tool. This can lead to many young women being diagnosed with breast cancer at more advanced stages and potentially lead to a premature death. With the growing numbers of young women being diagnosed with breast cancer, it is time that we do something about this.

Women: listen to your gut. Look at your breasts, feel your breasts, talk to your doctor about your breasts. Don’t be afraid to ask for additional tests. Be sure to follow through with those tests even if your doctor doesn’t seem worried. I am not a medical doctor or cancer expert, but I am a scientist. I have been trained to think critically and rationally and follow what science tells us. In my case, the science said that it was extremely unlikely that I would have breast cancer. However, when it came to my health, I put all rational thoughts aside and followed my gut.

Doctors: listen to your patients. You are our first line of defense in confronting this disease. Although it may be rare, no one is too young for cancer. We trust you to help us make decisions about follow-up tests. Please do not dismiss our gut instincts as irrational fears. Please encourage us to get tested even though you may think the changes in our breast are nothing to worry about.

Cancer researchers: we need better and more cost-effective screening tools for detecting breast cancer in young women. Although the mammogram has been extremely effective for older women, it is not effective for us. Ultrasound and MRI are better, but they are expensive and insurance will not cover them unless symptoms are present. If symptoms are present, we’re likely talking about advanced stage cancer. Given that early detection is a key factor to defeating breast cancer, it’s time we have effective screening tools for women of all ages.

Foundations and granting agencies: we need more funding for breast cancer research in young women. We remain drastically under-represented in scientific studies. Knowing more about how breast cancer differs in young women and how it uniquely affects our lives — fertility issues, early menopause, caring for young children — can lead to a better treatment and prevention in young women. It can also help them feel less marginalized.

There are breast cancer victims of all ages, and survivors of all ages. I am grateful to be counted among the survivors. The National Breast Cancer Coalition has proposed a deadline to end breast cancer by 2020. But this cannot be achieved without thinking of all women – old, middle-aged and young.