We Need To Talk About Cancer and Breast Health Before Age 40


People are always shocked when I tell them I am a breast cancer survivor, highlighting the need to discuss the fact that people under the age of 40 can be diagnosed, too.

From a 30-year-old breast cancer survivor, we need to start talking about breast health — and the potential of breast cancer — in young women before the age insurance tends to cover mammograms.

Though the risk of breast cancer is greater in older women, as a young adult survivor who faced stage 2, grade 3 triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) at age 28, I am urging our society to expand the breast cancer narrative to improve the outcomes and experiences for our younger patients facing this disease.

My Breast Cancer Experience As a Young Adult

In August of 2020, I almost skipped my breast exam. Because I had a breast exam about a year and half prior and my genetic testing report came back negative for any gene mutations, the doctor felt comfortable with foregoing this less invasive test during an OBGYN appointment. But thanks to the energy of a nurse who questioned me not having it, I intuitively knew that I needed to advocate for myself by asking for the breast exam. In this appointment, a 3.6-cm lump was found in my right breast.

On the left, Lorelei Colbert poses for a photo in February 2021 after her last chemotherapy treatment. On the right, Colbert poses for a photo in May 2022 at the Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Foundation Gala.

On the left, Lorelei Colbert poses for a photo in February 2021 after her last chemotherapy treatment. On the right, Colbert poses for a photo in May 2022 at the Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Foundation Gala.

After finding the lump, I was repeatedly told that I was too young to worry; and after having an ultrasound done, I was given the option to wait six months before getting the lump biopsied by a different doctor. I once again intuitively felt the need to advocate for myself and push for the first available appointment.

Less than three weeks from the initial find, I received the phone call that would change my life forever: I had breast cancer.

My Survivorship Experience As A Young Adult

Fast forward to today: I am at the point in survivorship where no one on the street would likely guess what I have been through unless they know me or I’ve told them. My hair is growing back (though I have gotten it cut and styled a couple times), I have lost most of the weight put on during chemotherapy, and my “foobs” (fake boobs via reconstruction following my bi-lateral mastectomy a day after my 29th birthday) look pretty good, too.

When I am out in public, I have received positive comments about sporting a “chic, short haircut” against the norm, and I’ve noticed it seems even more far-fetched when I say that the reason behind this haircut is because of the battle I faced not too long ago.

I write this from experience. And I write this now because I have recently noticed two trends after repeatedly sharing my experience. The first trend is the look of shock and disbelief from others when I say that I am a breast cancer survivor, even from those who intimately know this community. Beyond the strangers who I sometimes let into my not-so-secret diagnosis, two recent experiences particularly struck me.

About a month ago, I was playing pickleball across the country when I learned a fellow player was a breast radiologist. His jaw nearly hit the court, and his whole energy changed once I said I was a survivor — little did he know I had way more going on in my kitchen than being a feisty pickleball novice.

Then, I was working at an event where I spotted a fellow survivor who clearly (to me) had a single mastectomy. When she mentioned she was a survivor to the group, I shared that I, too, had endured a similar experience. After she got over the surprise factor, she thanked me for speaking up and saying something.

Colbert takes a selfie at an appointment weeks after a 3.6-cm lump was found in her right breast.

Colbert takes a selfie at an appointment weeks after a 3.6-cm lump was found in her right breast.

While these two interactions were different, the initial shock was the same. Both people are members in this breast cancer community and were surprised to hear that I had faced breast cancer, too. But this happens. Breast cancer in young adults happens. And as a young survivor, I have learned that I need to keep speaking up and sharing my story. There are lives that depend on it. If there is shock and disbelief in our own community, what does this go to say for the rest of society?

Breast Cancer Before 40, And Why We Need To Talk About It

The second recurring trend has been getting asked the same question by different people: “What’s the likelihood of getting breast cancer at your age?”

I did not know the answer to this question until turning to “Google University.” I found a few articles published from different research institutions stating that only 5 to 7% of women with breast cancer are diagnosed under the age of 40, the age in which mammograms tend to be covered and recommended in the United States.

From the article “Breast cancer before age 40 years” by Carey K. Anders and other oncology professionals around the country, “Approximately 7% of women with breast cancer are diagnosed before the age of 40 years, and this disease accounts for more than 40% of all cancer in women in this age group. Survival rates are worse when compared to those in older women.”

For me and many young women who I have come to know, we fall into this minority 7%. As young survivors diagnosed under 40, the journey of breast cancer can look vastly different. I’ve heard stories of:

  • young women being dismissed and/or delayed in their medical care because they are told they are too young by medical professionals
  • young mothers who thought they had a clogged milk duct and ignored the first symptoms
  • young women who have discovered their lump by doing a self-exam at home
  • young women whose partners found their lump(s) during intimacy
  • young women getting diagnosed after their qualifying early mammogram caught something because someone else in their family faced this beast

While each journey is unique, young survivors face a whole other obstacle when it comes to breast health– being heard and recognized. Breast cancer is not just an older woman’s disease, and we need to stop talking about it like it is. Hearing about grandmothers, aunts, moms, etc. getting breast cancer is not unusual. Hearing about my 24-year-old friend getting diagnosed with TNBC is. The likelihood is small, but the survival rates are worse.

So What Can We Do?
  • Talk about breast cancer and breast health before 40
  • Encourage self-breast exams and for young people to get to know their body at an early age
  • Explore genetic testing routes if cancer runs in your family
  • Prioritize your health and go to routine appointments
  • Speak up and share your story if you’re a survivor, caregiver or friend
  • Advocate for patient empowerment
  • Support organizations dedicated to breast cancer research and support

As a society, we can lift up and recognize young survivors through advocacy and awareness. It could save someone’s life, if only we continue to talk about it.

To learn more about Lorelei Colbert, visit www.LoreleiColbert.com.

To see a recent video Lorelei created for self-breast exam awareness, you can watch this video from March: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cak9QOspBZq/

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.

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