While it’s rare, it certainly can be devastating — young women diagnosed with breast cancer in the prime of their life. After consulting with several experts, NBC News Chief Health and Science Correspondent Robert Bazell learned that the incidence of breast cancer in younger women is not on the rise, but when it does strike, it presents special difficulties.
Patti DuFour was busy raising four young children when she was given the diagnosis — breast cancer at the age of 36. "Once you hear those words, it's really bad news," she says. "It's like your whole world just crumbles beneath you."
Breast cancer is extremely rare in women under 40. So rare, in fact, that many doctors often miss it.
DuFour says, "I remember that was probably my first thought when I received my diagnosis is, 'how are we going to get through this, you know we have a six-month-old. A young family requires a lot of energy. So that was probably my biggest fear through all of it."
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Just how many young women are told by their doctors that they weren't old enough for breast cancer?
"Younger women are more likely to have a breast mass and be told it can't be cancer, you're too young. And what I’d like to say is that's not necessarily true," says Dr. Ann Partridge, a breast cancer specialist at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
Her practice is about 50 to 60 percent women in their 30s and 40s.
Partridge, in her 30s herself, is acutely aware of what might be on the minds of her young patients.
“Breast cancer strikes younger women in the prime of their lives," she says. "These women have different issues: they want to try to have a baby subsequently, they can difficulty with sexual functioning in follow up, which you can imagine might be more difficult for a 30-something to handle than a 60- to 70-something.”
Another huge problem in young women is the cancers are often more aggressive, and so is the treatment — in most cases, surgery, followed by months of chemotherapy and radiation.
Jessica Byrnes, 28, is at the end of her nine months of treatment.
"I’ll go through whatever I need to go through if it was going to give me one more percent that it wasn't going to come back," she says. "That's all I needed to hear."
Like so many patients, Byrnes found chemo the most difficult on her body and her spirit.
"The fatigue was number one and the hot flashes — all of a sudden, it's like, whoosh!" she says. "It really takes over your body."
And then there's the hair loss. Byrnes chose to shave hers before it fell out.
"It was very emotional — you don't look like yourself," says Byrnes. "You don't like looking in the mirror. You don't like getting ready."
But why does it seem that there are more young women with breast cancer?
“We're noticing them more," says Partridge. "I think that they tend to pull on the heart strings and when you hear about a younger woman compared to an older woman you're more likely to take notice because of where they are in their life."
Fortunately, the prognosis for both Patti and Jessica is quite good — as it is for many young women.
“The vast majority of women will live through their breast cancer," says Partridge, "at least in the short term and most of them in the long term too."
DuFour says since the diagnosis, she’s learned to take life day-by-day.
“Life is simpler and that's a good thing," she syas. "I’m not so much in a rush to get things done with this busy family. I feel like someone has taken a camera and just hit an auto focus button and all of a sudden everything just seems much clearer to me — the grass is greener, the sky is bluer. You know those are the things that have changed and I think those are all gifts that I’ve received from having cancer.”
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