Did you see the story on our very own Survivor Spokesperson Victoria O’Connor? Here it is incase you missed it.
Victoria O’Connor had her whole life ahead of her in 2015.
Fresh university graduate. Soon-to-be paralegal student at Mohawk College. New job. Caring boyfriend. Several friends. Physically healthy, mentally optimistic. Hopes of one day having a family.
Then the 23-year-old was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“It was shocking and difficult for me to cope with,” says O’Connor, who initially thought the lump near her armpit was a cyst. “No one in my family had ever had it.”
What ensued was eight rounds of biweekly chemotherapy to shrink an aggressive, fast-growing tumour, a right mastectomy, and then three to four weeks of daily radiation.
It was a gruelling period. Almost as tough to handle were the questions swirling in O’Connor’s mind. What would happen with school? Her new job? Would her boyfriend stick around? Could she still one day have kids? And what about her body, would she ever look the same?
Now 31, she considers herself lucky to have been able to answer most of those questions. She finished school. Her employer understood. Her boyfriend stuck around; they got married and had two kids.
“But I know it’s not the same for everyone,” she says. “Young women have a unique set of challenges when they face a breast cancer diagnosis.”
It’s why O’Connor says she’s honoured to be a spokesperson for the BRIGHT Run this year, a Hamilton charity that’s recently helped fund a new breast cancer program tailored to young women.
The PYNK program at the Juravinski Cancer Centre — one of only three in the province — is designed to help women under 40 navigate through their breast cancer journey and address needs unique to their age.
While a diagnosis is challenging at any age, women under 40 face complex challenges — from body image and mental health to fertility and sexual dysfunction concerns.
“How do I tell my parents? How do I talk to my small children about it? How do I return to work, balance treatment with a young family, with school? This program zeroes in all of those things,” says Nancy McMillan, BRIGHT Run’s event chair.
“I was diagnosed when I was 47, and none of these issues were top of mind for me. But the younger population … they’re looking for that support and guidance.”
Announced last fall, the comprehensive program started accepting Hamilton patients this summer, said McMillan, noting BRIGHT jointly funded it with the Toronto-based Jesin-Neuberger Charitable Foundation.
The volunteer-operated BRIGHT Run was created in 2008 by Juravinski staff who were inspired by their patients’ willingness to support local breast cancer research. It’s held a run or walk every year since, drawing thousands of participants and raising more than $5.5 million for 17 research projects in the city.
“That’s our key piece, that all of the money raised stays in Hamilton,” McMillan says.
The funding of PYNK project came after years of hearing from local young women who needed more concentrated support after their diagnosis.
First established at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto in 2004, PYNK physician assistants connect patients with the appropriate specialists (fertility experts, genetic counsellors, plastic surgeons), supports and resources individual to their needs.
“People assume it’s all older women who get breast cancer, but there’s a lot of us who are young,” says O’Connor. “Offering these support and services, not just for treatment but for family planning or fertility or body image, is so important and something I would’ve benefited from.”
This year’s BRIGHT Run will kick-off at 9 a.m. on Sept. 9 at the Christie Lake Conservation Area. For more information, visit brightrun.ca/event-day.
Sebastian Bron is a reporter at The Spectator. email@example.com