Around this time last year, I received a text from a close girlfriend that read, “Call me, I have something important to tell you . . . it’s not good.â€ As my 30-something perspective would have it as I dialed her number, I assumed the news would be about any number of quarter-life crises: girlfriend gossip, boyfriend woes, job dilemmas, family issues. I never dreamed that “I have stage 3 breast cancerâ€ would be the words I would hear and recount as thoughts of how, when, and is this even possible overtook me.
How? Why? When? Is this even possible?
Not only was it possible, it was true. It was real and it was happening to someone I knew–a young, successful, thriving, beautiful 30-something woman–with cancer. For months, she knew something wasn’t right. She’d seen her OB-GYN and family doctor several times and even outright asked whether cancer could be the cause of her symptoms, as well as the reason for the lump she noticed during a self-screening. Her doctor confirmed the lump, but felt she was an extremelyÂ low-risk patient and reassured her that the cyst was likely benign. Yet, considering her family history of breast cancer, the doctor agreed that a mammogram couldn’t hurt; and might help determine if a biopsy was necessary. But getting her doctor’s recommendation was just the start; convincing her insurance provider to approve the mammogram was an altogether different battle. Why? Mammograms are not usually recommended for women under 40 because they are considered at average risk for developing breast cancer. For younger women, breast cancer is most often first detected by noticing a lump or change in the look or feel of the breast, nipple or underarm area. My thirty-something-year-old friend was fighting for a diagnosis and unbeknownst to her, fighting for her life at the same time. By the time her insurance provider granted a pre-authorization for the mammogram; my friend’s cancer had progressed to stage 3–meaning it had spread beyond her breast and likely invaded nearby lymph nodes and muscles.
Gen X and millennial women have fewer overall resources to help them cope with breast cancer–and that’s in addition to the insurance roadblocks they may face. According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, breast cancer risks in younger women with BRCA1 or BRCA2 inherited gene mutations are higher among those of African American ethnicity. For example, younger African American women are more likely than older African American women–or women of other ethnicities–to be diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancers. In addition, younger women are more likely than older women to have more advanced stage cancers at diagnosis.
Erin Clemons, breast cancer survivor, diagnosed at 25
Breast cancer survivor Erin Clemons, of Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, was diagnosed just months before her 25th birthday. She says, “the largest obstacle for me in dealing with my diagnosis was trying to live in two worlds–one of a ‘normal,’ bright-eyed girl in her mid-20s, and that of a cancer patient. I did my best to respect both, but that’s a tough line to walk. I experienced a lack of empathy on my job at the time. I also struggled with finding a support group where I felt like I belonged. Everyone there was married with children and dealing with a totally different set of challenges than I was. I obviously was concerned about how this would impact my life after treatment, but also how I could juggle chemo with my summer travel plans. I honestly and sincerely felt I was too young to put everything on hold. So, I didn’t.â€
Today, Clemons is cancer free and thriving in her career. She volunteers her time and shares her story with other survivors, but still vividly remembers what it was like to be a young professional with cancer. She reminds supporters that there is diversity within the diagnosis and that the needs of all are broad.
Anne-Marie Appiah, Painted Pink founder and CEO
Anne-Marie Appiah is the founder and chief executive officer of Painted Pink, Inc., a nonprofit focused on raising awareness and funds to find a cure for breast cancers among millennials. A millennial herself, Appiah is on a mission to educate, support, and empower young adults in the fight against breast cancer. Together with her powerhouse team of millennial advocates and Painted Pink supporters, she works to raise funds for local cancer patients at Emory Winship Cancer Institute in Atlanta, as well as to advocate for new laws and research to help increase the support of minority millennial women affected by breast cancer.
So what can you do as a millennial to join the fight against breast cancer? According to Appiah:
– Millennials can use their influence and power to advocate for genetic cancer testing in their state.
– Millennials can request and advocate for age-appropriate support resources to be added to employer-provided health benefits.
– Millennials can also be proactive about having conversations with their gynecologists about breast exams and family health history.
– Most importantly, millennials can empower one another by staying informed, encouraging one another to be the healthiest version of themselves, and spreading the word about the growing number of available resources for millennials diagnosed with breast cancer.
Toni the CEO & founder of The Corporate Tea, an online resource that provides unfiltered advice to help professionals navigate their careers. Toni is a career strategist & HR blogger with over a decade of experience in corporate America. For more insights and advice, follow her @thecorporatetea