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Breast cancer at 19: Woman shares story, urges others to 'listen to your body'

A doctor told her the lump in her breast was nothing to worry about and she couldn't get a mammogram.
Eliza Petersen
“I think it's funny when people call me a survivor, I'm still fighting. Like, I haven't kicked it yet,” Eliza Peterson told TODAY. lizemopetey/ Tik Tok
/ Source: TODAY

There’s no hint of a health problem when you watch Eliza Petersen play both an angel and god gripped by an epic misunderstanding in her viral TikTok video.

But at 23, she has a breast cancer story to share after being diagnosed when she was just 19, she said.

The clip, which has been viewed more than 16 million times since early September, simply features her funny performance and a classic joke based on a word play.

God — depicted by Petersen in a paper towel beard — wants the angel to give the dinosaurs on Earth more muscle, or make them “meatier,” but the angel hears the instruction as “make them a meteor” and follows through. The video ends with their horrified expressions as they realize the consequences.

Petersen — a paralegal and paleontology buff who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, and describes herself as “the definition of a nobody” — was suddenly thrown into the spotlight, gaining tens of thousands of followers on social media overnight. She’s been both overwhelmed by the fame and grateful to have a platform to talk about the importance of people listening to their bodies.

Before the video, Petersen hadn’t talked about her breast cancer diagnosis with anyone other than her immediate family and her employer. She opened up about it on Twitter just recently.

“I think it's funny when people call me a survivor, I'm still fighting. Like, I haven't kicked it yet,” she told TODAY.

“I'm still going through treatment and going through checkups every six months, so I haven't been able to actually survive it yet. But the positive response from people has really been overwhelming for me, because it's giving me a lot of hope that I will be a survivor.”

The ordeal started in the spring of 2016. Petersen had seen a video with model Cara Delevingne urging women to check their breasts, so she did a self-exam in the shower one day and almost immediately felt a lump on her right side, she said.

She put it out of her mind for about three months, but when the lump started to get bigger, she went to a doctor who told her it was nothing to worry about.

More time passed, with Petersen getting more worried. When she sought a mammogram at a hospital, the staff told her that at 19 she was too young to get one.

“(The lump) just kept getting bigger and I couldn't get it out of my mind that something was wrong. My body was telling me, don't listen to the doctors, something is off and you need to go get it checked,” she recalled.

“I listened to that little voice, I listened to myself. I didn't listen to all the doctors who kind of shrugged me off, and it saved my life.”

Petersen finally found a breast oncologist and had surgery to remove the tumor in November of 2016. The diagnosis: atypical ductal hyperplasia — an overgrowth of abnormal cells in the breast ducts — that turned into ductal carcinoma in situ, a non-invasive breast cancer.

This type accounts for 1 in 5 new breast cancers and almost all women with this early stage can be cured, according to the American Cancer Society.

Petersen has no family history of breast cancer and her young age at diagnosis was highly unusual: Only 2% of women found to have DCIS last year were under the age of 40, statistics show. Overall, about 11% of all new cases of breast cancer in the U.S. are found in women younger than 45 years old.

She had another tumor removed, this time on her left side, in 2017.

Medical staff have told Petersen she’s “a medical mystery.”

“There are no answers and hopefully going through this and being able to have these doctors study my cells… they'll be able to help the next 20-year-old who gets it,” she said.

“If it can help somebody else become aware that this can happen, if this will help doctors know how to diagnose it in a young person in the future, I think that's 100% worth it for me.”

Petersen receives MRIs, biopsies, mammograms and ultrasounds every six months to monitor the illness.

She currently has two tumors that are being watched, she said. All of the medical appointments left her in debt despite having health insurance. When Petersen wrote about her plight on Twitter, donations from strangers have “made the biggest difference in the world.”

You are never too young for breast cancer, she said, urging others to do breast self-exams. Research hasn’t shown a clear benefit of such checks, but women should be familiar with how their breasts normally look and feel and report any changes to a doctor right away, the American Cancer Society noted.

“If the doctors are telling you nothing is wrong, but you can feel that there’s obviously something wrong, don’t just give up,” Petersen said.

“Keep looking for answers and keep trying to fight the good fight in order to get this all taken care of.”