Thanks, Phylly! Anything we can do to spread the word -- even if it's not the word we really want to hear -- is an important step in the fight against breast cancer.
I’ve only seen the previews, but the new movie 50/50 has already won me over—for at least two reasons. The first needs no explanation: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s dimples. The second has less to do with my heart, and more to do with my head: the movie is evidence that the cancer conversation is not only getting louder—it’s getting younger too.
But if I’m allowed one critique of this movie, it’s that Gordon-Levitt’s character isn’t a woman. A woman with breast cancer.
Despite popular perception, breast cancer doesn’t just strike once you’re over the hill. For about every 18 newly diagnosed cases, one is a woman under the age of 40. It’s a group that often has more aggressive types of breast cancer and suffers higher mortality rates. Plus, young women are readily misdiagnosed or diagnosed at a later stage because doctors—and women—often believe that your 20s and 30s are “too young” for breast cancer.
While age increases your likelihood of acquiring the disease, by no means does youth grant you immunity from it.
So what’s a young, seemingly healthy girl to do?
1. Get to Know Your Body
If your significant other is more familiar with your chest than you are, then congratulations on your enviable sex life! But more importantly, recognize that it’s time to step it up and get your feeling-up tally on par with your partner’s. After all, if you break up, you keep the boobs.
The good ol’ breast self-exam is an easy (and free!) way to get to know the look and feel of your girls. The point is not so much to scour beneath the surface for cancer, but to know what your body’s definition of normal is—including what changes are normal—so that you also know when something is wrong.
What’s normal, and abnormal, varies from woman to woman—everyone has lumps, bumps, inconsistancies, and asymmetries. Did you know you have a whole city under there? According to Breastcancer.org, breasts tend to have different “neighborhoods.” (Though I’m afraid my sorry A-minus-on-a-good-day boobs only have room for one neighborhood.) For the better endowed, some areas can feel like a “sandy beach” and others like “a lumpy bowl of oatmeal.” Depending on the time of the month, you probably have changing levels of tenderness too.
So be on the look (er, feel) out for anything that’s out of the ordinary for you, and keep in mind that the dreaded “lump” isn’t the only warning sign of breast cancer. Swelling, a rash, breast pain, nipple pain, redness, and scaliness can also signal that something’s wrong.
The recommendation of breast self exams is still debated among experts—they can lead to unnecessary biopsies and haven’t universally been shown to reduce mortality. So if you know your body and find that any of these symptoms persist, don’t panic—but also don’t hesitate to make an appointment with your doc.
2. Understand the Difference Between Statistics & Personal Risk
There is no single “breast cancer gene,” but there are genetic mutations that can increase your likelihood of acquiring certain forms of the disease. For example, African American women and women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent are more likely to get one of the most aggressive types. Others seem to be at least partly hereditary, but all the genes affected have yet to be identified.
Talk to your family members—the women on your mother’s and your father’s side—to learn about their health history. From a population perspective, having breast cancer in the family puts you at higher risk for developing the disease yourself.
But keep in mind that not falling into one of these higher-risk categories doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. (And, by the same token, just because you do fall into one of them, doesn’t mean the disease is inevitable.) In fact, most women who get breast cancer have no family history of the disease. Genetic mutations can be passed without being expressed, and a slew of other non-genetic (and still not totally understood) factors can play a role in your own risk. The risk for a disease could be one in a million, but if you are that one, your risk is 100%.
I don’t say this to scare you, just to raise your awareness. If you fall into a high-risk category or if fear of the disease is something that weighs heavily on your mind, you may want to consider talking to a genetic counselor or even sending your saliva away to a company that will chart out your personal risk. Both will provide answers about your own risk for the disease and can connect you to resources that help you decide if any further steps should be taken.
The more you know about your body, inside and out, the more likely you will be to catch a problem in it’s earliest, and most treatable, stages.
3. Don’t Underestimate Your Intuition
Maimah Karmo had been performing breast self-exams since age 13, and was 32 when she felt something that she “just knew” wasn’t right. But her doctor disagreed—arguing that she was “too young” for breast cancer. Six months later, Karmo returned with a lump that had doubled in size. She scheduled a biopsy behind her doctor’s back, and was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.
“If I hadn’t pushed for a biopsy, I would be dead,” says Karmo, who has since founded the TigerLily Foundation, an organization that supports and raises awareness for young women with breast cancer. “I learned to be my own best advocate.”
Doctors are experts, but they are also human. Many have never seen—or even heard of—breast cancer in young patients. So be an expert in your body, listen to that gut feeling, and find a provider who listens to you.
Unfortunately, there’s still much that’s unknown about breast cancer and no clear-cut way to stave it off entirely—you can exercise regularly, eat well, and do all the “right” things and still develop the disease.
But you can catch it early and you can stay informed. If you’re young and healthy, then there’s no better time than now to take your health (and your breasts!) into your own hands.
Read more from The Daily Muse’s Breast Cancer Awareness series.