Talking About More Than Just The Color Pink
By: Stacia S. Illustration: Kelly Marcelle Malka
During the month of October, organizations and companies across Canada and the U.S. are proudly and publicly supporting breast cancer research and charities in honor of it being Breast Cancer Awareness Month. With all the altruistic awareness events during the month, it’s surprising how little discussion these campaigns actually generate about breast cancer itself. While we all know that breast cancer exists and just like any other cancer- it sucks! How much do we actually know about it?
In my opinion, I don’t think we talk about it nearly enough for women to be knowledgeable enough about it. For example, did you know that 12,150 women under the age of 40 are diagnosed with breast cancer every year? I didn’t, so when I was diagnosed a week before my 32nd birthday I was jolted.
I, like many others, had always thought of it as an older women’s disease. Which isn’t inaccurate. Only 5% of breast cancer diagnoses in Canada are in women under the age of 40. So while it’s not as common in younger women than it is in older women, it’s still affecting a lot of us. But very rarely is this addressed. How many breast cancer campaigns actually feature women under the age of 50?
Up until I was diagnosed, no one in my family had been diagnosed with breast cancer. So, of course, I didn’t think too much about it beyond supporting awareness every October on social media with a simple post. But it turns out that less than 15% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history of it. So thinking that you’re safe from risk simply because you don’t have a family history of the disease is a major misconception.
I’ve never been a smoker, drug user, or frequent drinker, which are lifestyle factors most commonly associated with cancer risk. Since being diagnosed, I’ve been tested for the BRCAs, the ‘breast cancer’ gene, and luckily, the test came back negative. In sum, this means that no one can really explain why I got this disease. So as morbid as it sounds, you shouldn’t consider yourself safe even if the probabilities are in your favor.
So now we know a bit more about breast cancer in young women. The next step after raising awareness is to take action. Here’s some information that younger people (the under-50 crowd who aren’t getting regular mammograms) really ought to know, and which should be more publicly shared:
Often touted, but rarely practiced, is the monthly breast self-exam. I will admit that I did these a grand total of two times in my life before my diagnosis. If only I’d done them once a month, perhaps I would have caught my tumor sooner. It takes just a few minutes, and you can even download an app to remind yourself every 30 days that it’s time for another check.
Second, find out if you have any relatives with breast cancer. Turns out it’s not only Moms or Grandmas that you should check in with. All of my female relatives, including cousins and aunts, will now qualify for yearly mammograms at the age of 27 – five years younger than when I was when I received my own diagnosis. Ladies, we are so incredibly lucky to have these early screening programs, we should be taking more advantage of them! Discussing health issues isn’t particularly fun at your annual family reunion, but it’s important to do so. Information like that is critical when you need to find out if you are eligible for any kind of early screening program.
Third, be your own advocate. So many young people’s health concerns are overlooked because it’s assumed that age is a preventive factor. In my case, I had a breast ultrasound when I first found a lump. It was diagnosed as a complex cyst at first, and I was told to follow up in a month. Two weeks later when it had become noticeably larger and very painful, I called my doctor to move up my next ultrasound and was turned down. There wasn’t enough concern when there should have been. However, based on my age, risk factors, and original diagnosis the doctor didn’t find it necessary. Luckily for me, I have a relative with medical experience who, recognizing the seriousness of the issue, took me to the ER that night. I was then referred to a breast clinic and within a week and a half, I’d been diagnosed and was preparing to start my first round of chemo.
Cancer spreads faster the younger you are, and because of the lackadaisical attitude many physicians have towards young people’s health, our cancer is often more advanced when it’s eventually diagnosed. So the sooner you get someone taking your concerns seriously, the better off you are.
I’m lucky that I’ve always loved pink because I’m sporting a lot of it these days. But the color and the ribbons alone aren’t what’s going to make a difference in this battle. It’s the discussions about how we can actively prevent, diagnose, and control breast cancer that are going to save lives – and widening this dialogue to include young women should be our next goal.