'I never imagined this': Women diagnosed with breast cancer in their 30s face different challenges

abredeson@islandpacket.comOctober 30, 2012 

  • Medical experts suggest women perform breast self exams once a month.

  • When checking your breasts, you should look for any changes in contour or skin of the breasts. Is one breast a different shape than the other? Is there dimpling? Is the skin swollen? Does the skin look like the peel of an orange?

  • Don't hesitate to ask for a second opinion if you believe there is a problem.

  • The average woman has a 1 in 10 chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime. If breast cancer runs in her family, she has a 1 in 5 chance of developing the disease.

  • Breast cancer can occur at any age, but the risk increases as women get older. Recent studies estimate that by age 20, 1 out of 1,837 women will be diagnosed with the disease. By age 40, it's 1 out of 235.

  • Mammography is a great screening tool, but it misses 10 percent to 15 percent of breast cancers and might be higher in women with dense breasts.

  • Sources: Dr. Perry Burrus, general surgeon with Beaufort Memorial Hospital; Jackie Brown, breast care coordinator at Beaufort Memorial Hospital; and Dr. Virginia Herrmann, professor of surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina, a member of Hollings Cancer Center Comprehensive Breast Cancer Group and medical director of the nationally accredited Breast Health Center at Hilton Head Hospital

Teresa Boatwright-Parker is a working mother, with four children ranging from ages 5 to 17. At age 35, she's not what most people picture as being a breast-cancer patient.

Yet she is. The Beaufort woman was diagnosed Aug. 13. And like many other women in the prime of their lives, she is learning the hard way that breast cancer is not reserved for the 40-plus crowd.

"I never imagined this," Boatwright-Parker said, adding that she has always been healthy, has never smoked and no one else in her family has had breast cancer.

Boatwright-Parker had a mastectomy Sept. 5. She had her first chemotherapy treatment Oct. 18.

"It really brings me down," she said about the chemo. "I don't have as much energy, and my appetite is horrible. I can only eat chicken noodle soup, and I don't even like chicken noodle soup."

But what she really doesn't like is not being able to keep up her normal routine. She's on leave from work and can hardly do anything at home.

"I can't get up and go like I used to," she said. "It's hard. ... This has been really life-changing for me."

Boatwright-Parker said her husband is doing most of the work around the house. She just rests in bed and helps the children with their homework when they need it. But that's about all she can do for now.

Dr. Virginia Herrmann, a professor of surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina, member of Hollings Cancer Center Comprehensive Breast Cancer Group and medical director of the Breast Health Center at Hilton Head Hospital, said it's not unusual to see women in their 30s with breast cancer, but the disease is more commonly diagnosed in the postmenopausal years.

She said the issues are so different when younger women are diagnosed with breast cancer compared to when they are postmenopausal. They often are going through a new stage of life -- getting married, starting a career or having children. That means additional challenges.

"Now, they're diagnosed with a disease that generally occurs later in life and is going to be associated with surgery, maybe chemotherapy, likely other medication that may make childbearing difficult, possible radiation," she said. "It's overwhelming. It's devastating. There's more body-image issues. ... For women that have children who are young and are diagnosed, it's particularly heartbreaking because they're worried not just about themselves, but they're worried about their children."

Like Boatwright-Parker, Hilton Head Island resident Kim Hall had to make some big adjustments when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 38.

"I had to go from being the 'go go go' mom to the 'no no no' mom," Hall said. "I had to relearn what my limitations were at the time, and that I think was hard on my kids."

She said she still tried her best to pick up the kids from school and go to all their games and practices, but it wasn't easy.

She said her first concern when diagnosed was how she would tell her two children, then ages 8 and 10.

She wanted to have all her ducks in a row before telling them anything. Once she knew the treatment plan, she was able to tell them. She would have a double mastectomy, reconstructive surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

"I never once said, 'I'm going to die,' " Hall said.

But the kids did ask. Her response: "We're all going to die sometime, but this cancer is not going to kill me."

Hall said one thing she has learned from this experience is she has to be more aware of her body.

"If you're a parent and you're a mom, it tends to lend itself toward not always taking the best care of yourself," she said. "The kids come first. The husband comes first. Everything else comes before you."

Now she knows the importance of taking care of herself and checking her breasts regularly.

That is the key, according to Herrmann, who said it is essential that women perform self breast exams, preferably as soon as they start developing breasts.

Herrmann also stressed the importance of mammograms, which she said are the best method for early detection, particularly foen in their 40s. Herrmann said women should begin getting mammograms between age of 35 and 40. If a woman's mother or a sister had breast cancer, she should begin imaging 10 years earlier than the mother's age at diagnosis.

"No woman, at any age, should assume that just because she's young, it's not a breast cancer or something that needs evaluation," Herrmann said. "Most lumps are benign, but we don't want a woman to ignore a lump based on her age."

Herrmann said the survival rate for young women is the same as it is for older women as long as you compare the same stage and type of breast cancer.

Dr. Perry Burrus is a general surgeon with Beaufort Memorial Hospital who focuses primarily on breast disease. While most of his breast-cancer patients are in their 50s and 60s, he has seen some younger than 40.

Burrus said he has had patients bring their young children to radiation treatments.

"I think when a young person gets diagnosed with breast cancer, it's devastating because typically they hear about it only in older women," Burrus said. "They're at a phase in their lives where they say, 'This could never happen to me.' And a lot of times they have young children, and they have to deal with their young children while they're going through surgery, chemo and radiation. And that poses added challenges."

Kelly Erdel was 33 when she was diagnosed with the disease two years ago.

"I was shocked," the Beaufort mother of three said. "I don't have any of the risk factors."

Erdel underwent chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and reconstruction. She said it wasn't as bad as it could've been. But the worst part was looking at her children, wondering how long they would have their mother around.

"I remember thinking, 'If I die, who is going to fold their clothes?' " Erdel said. "It made it a lot more important when I was able to do it again. I didn't have to do it. I get to do it. I'm so happy to just be here."

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