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Deb Kirkland first started performing breast exams in nursing school, practicing on peers at the behest of her instructor. It was the first time she learned the statistics, risk factors, and symptoms of the disease. She was healthy, had no family history of breast cancer, and was young, yet she noticed a lump in her right breast during a self-exam at age 32. Concerned, she went to her OB/GYN and was referred for a mammogram and ultrasound, which led to a biopsy that gave her a diagnosis. “I was shocked to hear the words, ‘You have breast cancer,’” Kirkland says of the day she received the news. “That day I became a statistic: 1 in 8 women will have breast cancer in their lifetime.”
Kirkland opted for a bilateral mastectomy—a decision that, she said, had no affect on her survival rate but decreased the risk of breast cancer recurring in her other breast to less than 1 percent—and started chemotherapy, followed by daily doses of Tamoxifen for the next five years. Now a survivor of 13 years, Kirkland continues the fight to promote self-awareness through her work as a patient navigator at the Hoffberger Breast Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
Breast cancer discriminates no age and no gender: Twenty-one percent of women diagnosed in 2013 were under the age of 50. Kirkland’s fight is no exception to the statistics, but her knowledge of the risks and self-awareness allowed for early detection and a quick response. Knowledge is power, so we talked to Kirkland and Dr. Dennis L Citrin, medical oncologist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Midwestern Regional Medical Center in Illinois, to get the facts every young woman needs to know about breast cancer. Though October is dedicated to the awareness of the disease, we encourage you to continue the fight and spread the knowledge yearlong.
There’s No Such Thing As Being Too Young
It’s a myth that young women have virtually no risk of developing breast cancer. In fact, 25,000 women under the age of 45 develop breast cancer every year, according to Dr. Citrin. The youngest patient Dr. Citrin has treated was diagnosed when she was 22 years old, without a family history of the disease. “Just because a woman is young doesn’t mean that if she feels something wrong with her breast, she shouldn’t just either assume or allow a doctor to reassure her that it’s a benign disease simply because of her age,” Dr. Citrin says. “I would emphasize that if any woman feels anything different in her breast from what she’s used to normally, she has to have it checked out by an experienced physician. If it feels different to the patient, it has to be evaluated, and that means an ultrasound usually followed up by a biopsy.” Kirkland recommends women have annual clinical breast exams beginning at age 20, and annual mammograms at age 40.
Being Female Is the Biggest Risk
Simply being a woman is the No. 1 risk factor for developing breast cancer. One in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, accounting for 99 percent of breast cancer cases (men account for 1 percent and are diagnosed at a rate of 1 in 1,000). Although it’s important to know and alert doctors of family history, only 5 to 10 percent of those diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history of the disease. And there is an increased risk associated with delaying pregnancy beyond the age of 30, opting against breast feeding, and having a family history of the disease. Dr. Citrin says that while these factors pose a risk, they aren’t requisite indicators. “There are plenty of women who develop breast cancer who have no recognized risk factor other than the fact that they’re women. That’s why every woman has to be aware,” Dr. Citrin says.
Estrogen Is The Culprit
Men and women both have breasts with the same equipment and structure, so why does the disease affect women more prevalently? Estrogen. The woman’s body is in a constant cycle of hormones, and her breasts are stimulated by estrogen on a monthly basis. “Whenever cells are being stimulated to grow, that’s when abnormalDNA can occur, genetic mutations that can result in cancer,” Dr. Citrin says.