Although it’s widely seen as an older person’s disease, close to 800 women under 40 are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in Australia.
A 2014 report by the National Breast Cancer Foundation found that going through this in your 20s and 30s can be quite a different experience to one that happens later in life.
Younger women often think of themselves as bulletproof, which can make a breast cancer diagnosis psychologically very challenging.
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What’s more, they are typically affected with more aggressive cancers, with a higher rate of recurrence and spread, meaning the prognosis isn’t as good. Dealing with this while in the earlier stages of a career, or while looking after young children is an added challenge, physically and financially.
And those who haven’t started a family may find that choice is taken away by treatments that can bring on early menopause. Meanwhile, it can feel very isolating to be the only young face, surrounded by older women.
Sarah Hignett, from Adelaide, was 28 when she found a lump in her breast. Her GP’s response was: “It’s probably nothing – you’re too young, but let’s just get it checked out anyway.”
A few weeks later, after an ultrasound, a mammogram and a biopsy, Sarah was diagnosed with breast cancer. To help raise awareness of breast cancer and the importance of research into finding a cure, Sarah told her story to The New Daily.
Me and my friends were all so fearful because none of our circle of friends had any experience of cancer. It wasn’t on our radar, and I always associated breast cancer with older people.
I’d met my boyfriend, Sam, three months previously, and we were just dating. He was 27, and to go from going out with your friends every weekend and meeting this new girl to the worst reality ever … I don’t doubt that it would have been really difficult for him – and for my parents too. As hard as it was for me, I can’t imagine what it would be like seeing your child go through that.
I had a lumpectomy, and although that had a good outcome, it was a high grade, which is consistent with getting cancer young. Then I started chemo, which was awful. We shaved my head, and Sam shaved his too, so we matched. For some reason losing my eyelashes upset me more. Once I’d lost my eyebrows and my eyelashes, I looked like a really sick person and I didn’t like that.
I work in advertising and they were really supportive. I would take off the week after chemo, which is when I was the sickest, and then work the next two weeks. I took a lot of unpaid leave, so I’m lucky that my parents and Sam were able to help out with the medical bills.
In July 2013, I had a double mastectomy because, based on my age, it’s likely to come back later on. I did a lot of work with counsellors leading up to that. I was worried how both Sam and I would react to how I looked afterwards. We did research, but all the photos are of much older women. That was probably the most scared Sam had been. He didn’t like that I was going to be under anaesthetic for so long. It was five hours. But it went well.
When I was looking into the surgery was around the time Angelina Jolie had hers, and it sounds silly, but it really helped. She approached it from a really empowering place, taking control of her health. That helped both of us to feel good about the decision.
Throughout chemo, I wanted to prove I could still be a normal, functioning member of society, but the medication I’ve been on since then really knocks me around, so I’ve cut back to two days a week, plus one at a pilates studio. It was really hard to admit that I was struggling.
Sam has been amazing. I was told multiple times how nice it was to see a partner stick around. He came to every appointment. His way of dealing with it is to get as much information as possible, so he wanted to be there for everything. It made me realise your partner goes through all the same stuff, but they don’t get the same support. Everyone’s so concerned about the sick one, but he was the one who looked after me. He had to take a lot of leave, too. It would have been so much harder without that support and love. When you’ve got significant scars and no hair, having someone there to reassure you and still love you, is really powerful.
We got married in February – which was awesome – and all my doctors are very supportive of us having children. Before I went on my current medication my menstrual cycle had returned, which is a good indication of fertility. So, when I’ve finished that in a year, we’ll look at doing an egg count.
But nothing will ever be the same again.
When you’re on the kind of treatment that’s visible to people – when you’ve got no hair – they accept you as a sick person and make allowances, but as soon as you’re finished with that, everyone expects you to be back to normal. You’re never back to normal. It’s a really powerful thing to be made aware of your own mortality.
I’ve walked in the Mother’s Day Classic every year since I was diagnosed, with a close group of friends from school. The first walk I did was during the time I was having chemo. I wasn’t particularly comfortable being in public with no hair, but the atmosphere was really empowering. To be around people who understand what you’re going through was so wonderful. Last year, Sam came with me as well, which was so special.
For more information on cancer in young women, visit www.800youngwomen.org.au
The New Daily is a proud partner of the Mother’s Day Classic, a fun run and walk, which raises funds for breast cancer research. It will take place on May 10. Visit the website to register online before the event.