Breast cancer is often associated with older women. However, young women are not exempt.
Although October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign to raise awareness of the disease, many women still take their health for granted, particularly millennials. However, breast cancer, a form of cancer that originates in breast tissue, is the most common cancer among women worldwide.
In fact, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, 1 in 8 American women who reach the age of 80 will be diagnosed in their lifetime. Each year, over 246,000 women will be diagnosed; that’s one woman every 2 minutes. Roughly 25,000 patients under the age of 45 will be diagnosed this year alone, which includes millennials, the largest generation since baby boomers. Millennials were born between the early 1980s and late 1990s, making them between ages 18 and 35 now.
Christina Best, 24
Christina Best, a 24-year-old North Carolina schoolteacher, is one of those young people. She was recently confronted with some of the toughest news of her life. Earlier this year, Christina discovered some irregularities during a regular self-exam, then visited a doctor who broke the news: She had Stage 2 breast cancer.
“The most challenging thing for me was the period of not knowing after my initial diagnosis,” she says. “I had a lot of plans for the summer that I eventually had to cancel. I experienced a lot of anxiety by not knowing my stage of cancer initially and what my treatment plan was.”
During the summer, Christiana underwent surgery to remove her cancer and discovered that it hadn’t spread. She’s currently undergoing chemotherapy, which has presented its own challenges: losing her hair, living at home again for the first time since leaving for college and being on extended sick leave, which has given her more free time than she’s had in years.
“What has helped are the small goals I make for myself – walking around the neighborhood every day for exercise or going to see friends when I feel up to it. Additionally, my post-treatment plans of [going back to school to pursue] a third degree gives me a lot of motivation to finish my treatment and get on with my life and goals.”
For African-American millennials, the risk is among the highest of all diagnosed cases among women of all ethnic backgrounds. More Black women under the age of 45 are diagnosed than their Caucasian peers. While genetics and first-degree relatives (mother, sister, daughter) can influence a woman’s chances, 85 percent of women with breast cancer have no family history. And awareness about the disease in younger women is still hard to find. Christina wrote a blog post about walking into the cancer treatment center to find women much older than her who seemed surprised to see her there.
“I personally don’t know any millennials with breast cancer. It’s certainly not common at this younger age, but there is a growing presence and, thankfully, the Internet is allowing us to connect with each other and share our experiences.”
Painted Pink is one of those organizations helping to raise awareness of breast cancer among millennials. With a mission to “Educate, Support, Empower and Survive,” the Atlanta-based group focuses on preventative measures and funding for cancer patients. Founder Ann-Marie Appiah is a millennial and survivor that hosts an annual luncheon in Atlanta during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Christina emphasizes living a healthy life, knowing your body, maintaining regular self-exams and doctor’s appointments and being proactive about your health. While there is no single cause for breast cancer, doctors say that exercising, eating healthy, not smoking, taking caution around chemicals, and managing alcohol consumption go a long way to giving you the best shot at a cancer-free life.
If you do know someone who was recently diagnosed, Christina says to “be present and treat the person regularly. Also, listen to what it is they want and need but give them the time to know what it is they want or need. If they want to vent, let them do so. If they want encouragement, give them encouragement. If they want to be happy, let them be happy.”
Another is one of the biggest tools that people like Appiah and Christina credit for getting them through their diagnosis and treatment. “Faith has been the center of my treatment,” Christina explains. “I am naturally an optimistic person, but keeping my faith has been essential to peace and healing. I know that everything I go through in life is for greater, and I have much to offer through the blessings that I am given.”
The truth of the matter is that I’m an anxious person, and my anxiety manifests itself in various ways — some comical and others not as much.
For example, I’m a bit of a hypochondriac. If I happen to be in front of my computer when someone on Good Morning America is describing the disease du jour — from West Nile virus to celiac disease, I always fire up Google to make sure I’m not exhibiting any of the symptoms. I haven’t slept in complete darkness since I was in the fourth grade (unless I’m not the only person in the room), which is when I discovered scary movies. And I am an avoidance perfectionist, which essentially means that I sometimes avoid starting on a task because I’m scared that the end result won’t be all that good. (Some call this procrastination, but I like to keep it complex.) Deep, huh?
As I’ve gotten older, though, my anxiety seems to be loosening its grip on me. So far a random mosquito bite or a bite of bread, for instance, hasn’t killed me. The bogeyman hasn’t scooped up me from my bed as I slept. And slowly but surely, I’m discovering that “not perfect” is sometimes just fine.
But no matter how I spin it, the truth of the matter is breast cancer is a scary disease, and not just in and of itself. It’s also scary that, according to recent studies, one in eight women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. This is not a random condition that fits into a singular episode of a morning news program. It is not some phantom that disappears in the light of day. Breast cancer cannot be avoided, even if you try. It’s a bomb whose blast will eventually be felt in our lives, or in the lives of people we know.
In the course of my 38 years, I can recall many brave women who have had to battle with this ugly disease. I recall a woman at my church who was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was a little girl. I remember her saying she just wanted to live long enough to raise her children, who were close to my age. Her breast cancer eventually went into remission. I found it courageous yet tragic that this woman was able to raise her children before ultimately succumbing to the cancer after her kids reached adulthood.
I remember the editor of a small community newspaper I worked for after college. A former member of the U.S. Army, this tall woman intimidated me with her “take no stuff” orders and her “colorful” language. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she took it on in the same way she managed the newsroom: with courage and a determination to do it her way in spite of what others thought or said. She shunned traditional cancer treatments for a while because of the side effects and searched for alternative options. Although she eventually lost her battle with the disease years later, I was encouraged when I learned at her funeral that my former, irreverent editor had become a Christian. Before her death, she had faithfully attended and became an active member of a little Baptist church in the country.
Despite knowing these women, the prevalence of breast cancer did not truly enter my consciousness until I discovered that one of my Delta Sigma Theta Sorority line sisters was diagnosed with breast cancer when we were in our late 20s. I mistakenly thought only older women got breast cancer. I was shocked when the disease took her life in 2005.
I cannot pretend to know why God allowed these and other women who have suffered from breast cancer to die. But I am determined, particularly as this month is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, to remember these and other brave souls who passed away and honor those who are surviving.
Another one of my Delta Sigma Theta Sorority line sisters, Lola Brown, is one of those survivors. She is a two-time breast cancer survivor, though she is not even 40 years old yet. She says battling breast cancer has enabled her to develop a personal relationship with God that might not have happened otherwise. Her testimony is featured in my upcoming book, After the Altar Call: The Sisters’ Guide to Developing a Personal Relationship With God. For me, Lola’s experience puts a human face on another troubling statistic: black women have a higher incidence rate of breast cancer before age 40 and are more likely to die from the disease at every age, according to the American Cancer Society.
As I noted earlier, my tendency is to avoid anything that scares me, and sometimes my anxiety leads me to inaction. But since I am a woman, I cannot ignore breast cancer — though I’d certainly like to. I have to make sure I conduct monthly self-examinations, visit my doctor for annual examinations, and live a healthy lifestyle. More than anything, I have to take my anxiety to the Lord while praying for a cure.
For more information, visit the website for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.