Hamilton Spectator Op-Ed

Breast cancer’s new reality — no one is too young

You probably think young people don’t get breast cancer. That’s what I thought. We’re wrong.

As a 16-year breast cancer survivor and longtime event chair of BRIGHT Run, what strikes me is the number of people under the age of 40 diagnosed with breast cancer.

Without effort, I can think of nine people who were diagnosed before age 40, including this year’s BRIGHT Run survivor spokesperson, Victoria O’Connor, diagnosed when she was only 23.

Victoria is now 31, married and a mom of two little ones, with a career as a paralegal. It’s fair to say, though, that her world was shattered by her diagnosis. Spectator reporter Sebastian Bron’s story about Victoria appeared in the paper Aug. 10.

Experts say the incidence of breast cancer in young people is rising, but the reasons are unclear.

According to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation (CBCF), breast cancer is the leading cause of deaths among women under age 40. In Canada, four to 5.4 per cent of breast cancers occur in people under 40. That’s more than 1,000 cases a year.

There are challenges in diagnosing breast cancer in younger people. Although rising, the incidence is relatively low. Breast tissue in young patients is denser, making mammography not as effective. Most younger people don’t qualify for regular screening programs.

When breast cancer is found in a young person, it is often at a later stage, with more aggressive features that may lead to worse outcomes.

The diagnosis brings issues unique to a young population: shock, depression, early career disruptions, infertility, body image, child care, premature menopause, relationship challenges, and, potentially, early mortality.

BRIGHT Run is an annual family-friendly 1K/5K walk/run. It takes place Sept. 9 at Christie Lake Conservation Area. In 15 years, BRIGHT has raised more than $5.5 million for local breast cancer research. The money stays right here in Hamilton.

A year ago, BRIGHT Run partnered with the Toronto-based Jesin-Neuberger Charitable Foundation to bring the PYNK program to our Juravinski Cancer Centre (JCC). This is the third program in Ontario aimed at helping young breast cancer patients. The others are in Toronto.

PYNK aims to provide support and resources to patients and their families, from diagnosis, through treatment and followup. It is offered to all breast cancer patients up to age 40 to help meet their unique needs.

Sandra Turner, the JCC PYNK program’s care co-ordinator, says there have been 11 referrals since it started in mid-July. The youngest patient is 27; the oldest, 40.

“No one is too young to have breast cancer,” Sandra told me recently. “Education is a huge piece for this age group.”

“Being breast aware may help find things earlier,” she said. “Compare one side to the other. The earlier you start paying attention to breast health, the earlier you get a baseline for yourself. That makes it easier to recognize a change.”

We need to educate young people to pay attention to their breasts. We need to get breast health information out to post-secondary students. We need to ensure they understand how to do a self-examination properly to spot changes. If changes are found, they should be brought to medical attention and appropriately investigated.

People with strong family histories should be sent for genetic counselling, as there is enhanced screening for those with a genetic mutation.

The PYNK program’s mandate involves education to health-care practitioners and patients. With BRIGHT Run’s financial support, the PYNK program is focusing on research to understand more about this unique population.

Breast cancer is on the rise among people in their 20s and 30s. Being young is not protection against breast cancer. The time for action is now.

Visit brightrun.ca to help.

Nancy McMillan, a retired professional banker, is a 16-year breast cancer survivor. She has been honoured for her volunteer work with the BRIGHT Run, including receiving a Hamilton Woman of Distinction award and a Human Touch Award from Cancer Care Ontario.

Copied with permission from the Hamilton Spectator