Too Young for Cancer


I’ve met too many people who were told that they were too young for cancer before being diagnosed.

Cartoon drawing of blogger Natasha Carlson

After I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I decided to reach out for support, which was surprisingly difficult to find, considering that I live in a large, metropolitan area.

I first reached out to my clinic, where I was informed that they knew of a local support group, but that since this group was made up of almost exclusively women who were metastatic, I probably wouldn’t fit in with them. It was more than a little disappointing when they didn’t have any other suggestions for me. Then after more research on my own, I attended various support groups that were made up of women who were decades older than I was, who had very different concerns than I did, and with whom I had very little in common.

Eventually I came across a local group of young breast cancer survivors, and this was a saving grace for me. Through my conversations with them, I found people who had similar challenges as I did, and who were in the same phase of life as I was. It was largely through this group of young survivors that I was able to start healing from my traumatic journey. Ultimately, I took over leadership of this local group, and so now I spend a good portion of my free time meeting with young survivors and supporting them in whatever ways are necessary.

It was in this role that I heard the same story time and time again. Women who were told by their doctors that they were “too young” for cancer. That the breast lump they were feeling was just a cyst, or a fibroadenoma, or a clogged milk duct if they happened to be pregnant or breastfeeding. They were told, “it can’t be cancer because cancer doesn’t hurt” when they pointed out a painful lump. They were dismissed or reassured that they couldn’t possibly have cancer. They were too young. And so consequently for far too many, they weren’t even (initially) offered the appropriate testing, such as a mammogram or ultrasound, which is standard of care for evaluation of breast abnormalities.

For more than a few of them, by the time they ultimately were diagnosed many months later, they already had late-stage disease. We all know the extreme importance of early detection, so it is difficult for anyone in this situation to not look back in retrospect and wonder, “would that have made a difference? Would I have been diagnosed earlier if I had been listened to and been offered an appropriate evaluation at the time that I raised a concern? Would that have impacted my chance at becoming cancer free/no evidence of disease? Would that maybe have given me more time with my family?”

I wish these stories were just anecdotes, but the statistics tell us that they are reflective of a growing reality. An even harsher reality is that when a young woman develops breast cancer, it is likely to be more aggressive when compared to older women, as well as diagnosed at a later stage.

So, it is really quite mystifying and maddeningly frustrating that women are too often told that their symptoms are “nothing to worry about” because they are “too young for cancer” before even a modicum of appropriate medical evaluation is performed.

Although it is certainly more unusual to develop breast cancer at a young age (under 40) compared to older women (median age of diagnosis is 62), it absolutely does happen, and in fact more younger women are being diagnosed than ever before. This could, in part, be due to better and more advanced screening methods. Additionally, the more widespread availability of genetic testing may mean that women are more aware that a family member has a genetic mutation which leads to a higher likelihood of cancer, and so they may be more cognizant that a breast issue may be more serious than it appears and may seek out evaluation earlier.

Many of the people I have met, both in person and virtually, who have experienced this heart-wrenching nightmare themselves have made it their mission to share their stories, to get the word out to both medical providers and to women (and men) in general that young people can and do develop cancer. There are any number of ways they can spread awareness: speaking at support groups and patient advocacy events, writing blogs or memoirs, participating in podcasts and TV interviews, just to name a few. But it is only by doing this, by being persistent, continuing to speak out, and eventually gaining enough momentum to transform the microphone into a megaphone that everyone will understand that there is no such thing as being too young for cancer.

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