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College-age women often unaware of breast cancer risk

10:19 PM, Nov 11, 2013   |    comments
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Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated 70,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer between the ages of 15 and 39. This number refers to those diagnosed with all types of cancer.

Sarah Hamby found a lump in her breast as a sophomore in high school.

By the time she reached her freshman year of college at Murray State University in Murray, Ky., she felt her second. Hamby went to her doctor for a checkup and asked about the small lumps in her breasts.

The doctor felt five of them.

"I held it in until I got out of the door," Hamby says. "I called my mom and started bawling."

She set up an appointment to get a bilateral ultrasound and eventually had the lumps removed. After several tests, they were found to be benign.

While facing the stresses of college classes, Hamby was also dealing with complications from her surgery and had frequent appointments with her doctor and scheduled ultrasounds.

The possibility of being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease isn't something many college-age women face, but according to one study, these women have major misconceptions about breast cancer.

With Breast Cancer Awareness Month coming to a close last week, many organizations, such as the Young Survival Coalition, are encouraging awareness among women under the age of 40.

Every year, about 70,000 people are diagnosed with cancer between the ages of 15 and 39, according to the Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology Progress review group.

The Young Survival Coalition says breast cancer accounts for 15% of all cancer diagnoses in that age group. Not only is a breast cancer diagnosis possible, but it's more aggressive in younger patients and has a lower survival rate. Nearly 80 percent of young women diagnosed with breast cancer find their breast abnormality themselves.

Kayla Falcon was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer at 22. A year before her diagnosis, Falcon's doctor told her the lump in her breast couldn't be cancerous because she was so young.

"I was very upset, I had a lot of anger," she says. "If they would've paid attention when I caught it, it would've been a whole different story. I can't do anything about it but let others know you're never too young for breast cancer."

Falcon has since lost her hair due to two different types of chemotherapy.

Throughout her treatment, Falcon has met many women her age with breast cancer - most were diagnosed at an earlier stage and will likely survive the disease.

"It sounds scary, but I'm not really scared - God's putting me through this to help other people," she says. "I know students are busy and young, but you really never know."

Susan Brown, director of health education at Susan G. Komen for the Cure - a non-profit dedicated to raising awareness and funds for women with breast cancer - says the psychological consequence of a young woman facing a breast cancer diagnosis is very different from that of an older woman.

She says women in their 20s don't expect to face mortality and haven't had as much experience in health care.

Many times they don't seek out second opinions or try to find doctors to suit their needs, she says.

"(Women in their 20s) should be facing other decisions - finishing school, thinking about starting a family," Brown says.

"One survivor I know who was diagnosed at a young age thought about breast cancer every day after her diagnosis, and still thinks about her possibly mortality even though she survived 20 years ago."

Irene Frederick, academic director of health care leadership at the University of Denver, agrees that the mindset of young women is entirely different when it comes to life-threatening diseases. Frederick spent 30 years as an OB-GYN and cared for many young women with the disease during that time.

Although she only remembers one patient who was diagnosed in her early 20s, Frederick says there isn't a time period in any woman's life where the complaint of a breast mass should be dismissed.

"I would hope that not only young women's awareness of the possibility of breast cancer improve, but the physician's awareness as well," she says. "There is a lot of downplay, but the rule of thumb is that you never know."

Frederick says college students need to spend time making sure they are supporting a healthy immune system - something she knows college students tend to forget.

She says even though some women may have a genetic predisposition for the disease, adding poor lifestyle choices will only increase the probability of a diagnosis.

Frederick encourages students to go to any on-campus health services with concerns. Because those services are consistently working with students, she says they are fairly up-to-date and more than likely wouldn't turn away a student's concern.

Hamby says many of the women she knows probably aren't aware that young women can get breast cancer.

Ever since her surgery, Hamby has taught women in her community how to check themselves for any abnormalities in their breasts.

"You hear so many tragic stories from women who have had to deal with breast cancer," she says. "It's not that difficult to ask the doctor those hard questions."

USA TODAY

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