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, 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.”