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Woman diagnosed with breast cancer at 26 urges others to 'listen to your body'

Almost 1 in 10 cases of breast cancer are reported in younger women.
/ Source: TODAY

Kelsey Summers was getting dressed on a fall morning last year when she felt a lump in her breast.

She was 26, an age when most women wouldn’t think about the possibility of breast cancer, but her mother was diagnosed with the disease at 28, so Summers had already been eager to get a mammogram before that day.

Kelsey Summers had to undergo chemotherapy, surgery and more regular intravenous infusions afterwards as part of treatment for breast cancer.Courtesy Kelsey Summers

Still, she wasn’t too concerned at first.

“I totally did not take it seriously at the beginning because I had had lumps that came and went with my menstrual cycle. So I was just thinking that's what this is — it's nothing,” Summers, who lives in Atlanta, told TODAY.

“It was something I could really feel, but it was not painful whatsoever. … I think in your 20s you have this kind of arrogance that nothing bad could happen to you.”

She mentioned the lump to her brother and a friend, who both encouraged her to get it checked out. When the friend’s mother found out, she immediately booked her an appointment with a doctor. A biopsy revealed stage 1 HER2-positive breast cancer.

It was October 2020 and with the availability of COVID-19 vaccines still months away, Summers was facing medical treatment in the midst of a pandemic. She’d have to undergo chemotherapy, surgery and more regular intravenous infusions afterwards to make sure the disease was completely gone.

“It was a little bit scary because they do really (emphasize) the fact that your immune system is suppressed,” she recalled.

“I had conversations with my roommate and my boyfriend — since those were the two people who really would go out in the world and come back to see me — that they had to be super careful.”

Summers stayed at home most of the time, venturing out only for doctor’s appointments and relying on others to do grocery shopping. Like many cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, she struggled with losing her hair, which was a big part of her identity, she said.

A photo shows Summers before undergoing treatment. Hair "is just a huge (part of) identity for some people, and I was one of them, so it was a little bit scary" to lose it, she said.Courtesy Kelsey Summers

The first time Summers saw locks of hair stay on her brush one morning on a Christmas trip with her father, she rushed to him in tears.

“It was fine after seeing everybody's initial reaction. I think that's what I was most nervous about, not my own feelings, but everybody's reaction to how I was going to look. And once I saw that, I was fine,” she said.

Almost 1 in 10 cases are in younger women

Most breast cancers are found in women who are 50 years old or older, but 9% of cases are reported in women under 45, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Risk factors for this younger group include having a close relative who was diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 45, having mutations in breast cancer genes such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, and having Ashkenazi Jewish heritage.

While lumps in the breast are a more common sign of cancer, there are other symptoms to be aware of: dents or dimples in the breast, red or flaky rash, swelling, nipple discharge or an inverted nipple.

Summers’ mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in her late 20s, so Summers wanted to get her first mammogram at 21, but was turned away even after sharing her family history.

“I wasn't really even, I felt like, taken seriously until I was seen by a doctor who had done a biopsy and said yes, this is 100% cancer,” she said.

The lump she felt was about the size of a golf ball, though the tumor itself ended up being less than a centimeter across — it was all the tissue surrounding it that made it feel so big.

When Summers underwent genetic screening, she tested negative for the BRCA gene mutations so she opted for a lumpectomy. She hasn’t yet been screened for other gene variants that can also raise breast cancer risk.

Doctors haven’t been able to say for sure why she and her mother were diagnosed with breast cancer at around the same young age. Her mom is doing well and has been cancer-free since her diagnosis and treatment, Summers noted.

"I feel like I'm getting normalcy back into my life," Summers said a year after being diagnosed.Courtesy Kelsey Summers

Summers’ last infusion treatment is Dec. 7th. Follow-up care may include taking a hormone blocker and getting regular mammograms. She’s doing well and getting normalcy back into her life, she noted.

“I’ve said a million times you don't have to be 30-plus to get this cancer. Cancer doesn't discriminate,” Summers cautioned other women.

“Listen to your body and be an advocate for yourself. Your doctors only know so much, but when it comes to how you are feeling with your own body, you have to be the biggest advocate. You have to be the squeaky wheel in the process.”