I was in my twenties when I began to take notice of all the breast cancer stuff that seemed to be everywhere at certain times of the year, and it was around this time that I began to be more conscious of the issue of breast cancer - of all the pink stuff and knowing that it was important to worry about it when you turned 40.
Every time I heard of breast cancer, it was within the context of women getting it at age 40 and over, so did not think I had anything to worry about.
I had been doing my breast exams since I was thirteen; my mother taught me to do them at a young age, but still it never dawned on me that I could actually GET breast cancer, until it happened to me. When my mother had taught me to do my exams, she had explained that even though I barely had breasts, it was important that I know what they felt like, so as they grew and changed, I would know if anything abnormal appeared. Thanks to her education and diligence, 18 years later, when I found the lump, while in the shower, I knew immediately that something was wrong and that I needed to get checked.
After finding the lump and visiting with a surgeon, even though the lump would not aspirate, the breast surgeon had it in her mind, that since I did not fit a statistic, I was to young to get breast cancer, so I should forget about it and go home - if it bothered me to come back in six months, but not to worry. "You're too young". I did wait six months and the lump doubled. After pushing for a biopsy, she did one and then called to tell me that it was cancer after all. The lump was Stage II - what if I had waited six more months?
The sad truth about this story is that it is not unique. As I lay in my bed, bald, sick from chemo and wondering where life would lead me, I learned that approximately 11,000 American women younger than 40 are diagnosed with breast cancer annually. Of those approximately 1,100 die because they were told "You're too young" or "Come back in six months". I also learned that younger women have more aggressive breast cancers and higher mortality rates.
Over the past three years, I have had an opportunity to meet and come to love many of these young women - some still living and some who have lost their lives needlessly to a preventable death from a disease that they did not know could take their lives.
I thought to myself so many times, what if I had not been taught to do my breast examinations at an early age? What if I had not pushed the doctor for further diagnostics? What if I had not been educated and been my own advocate? Where would I be today? My being alive today, similar to the 10,000 or so women who survive breast cancer, are a result of awareness and early detection. When discovered in time, survival rates are higher. Knowledge and education are key.
In 2006, when Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz introduced The Breast Cancer Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young Act (The EARLY Act) - H.R. 1740, S. 994, I was honored, as a young survivor of breast cancer, and representative of Tigerlily Foundation, to stand by her side, along with Senator Amy Klobuchar and representatives from other breast cancer foundations with young adult populations, to support this legislation.