Earlier this week, we lost a good friend to breast cancer. An only child, Jenny Paz was blessed with all the good things a young woman could ask for in life. She was beautiful and intelligent, had an excellent education and a very promising career in the biggest pharmaceutical company in the country.
Jenny was fun to be with; my wife and I never had a dull moment when we were with her. She was beautiful in and out, sharing her material blessings, as well as herself.
Four years ago she was diagnosed with a lump in her breast, which upon biopsy turned out to be a highly aggressive type of breast cancer. She underwent surgery and chemotherapy. She was 35 years old when diagnosed; she breathed her last at age 39.
Time was when breast cancer was completely unheard of before menopausal age. These days, cancer victims are getting younger, and the sad part of it is that cancer in the young is generally more aggressive, and relatively more resistant to treatment.
A patient may show some response and will be in remission, but after a few years of “reprieve,” the cancer comes back with a vengeance, cutting short their victims’ lives, usually at the peak of their careers.
Cases of breast cancer before the age of 40 now make up seven percent of all diagnosed cases of this type of cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, at age 20, the risk of getting breast cancer is one in 1,732; one in 228 at age 30, and one in 69 at age 40. Just to put it in perspective, during a woman’s lifetime up to age 85, the chance of developing breast cancer is one in eight (12 percent).
Just over a year ago, a young doctor-friend also succumbed to breast cancer barely three years after diagnosis. It was also an aggressive type of cancer, which even the most potent chemotherapy could not arrest. She had just turned 40 when she was diagnosed.
Breast cancer does not spare the young anymore, so women should stay vigilant about their breast health. Those who have “risk factors” should be more health-conscious and vigilant.
For breast cancer, the risk factors include a family history of any type of cancer, particularly breast or ovarian cancer; personal history of noncancerous breast diseases; history of radiation treatments on the chest before age 40; having a specific genetic defect (called BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation); early menarche (onset of monthly period) before age 12; having dense breasts; heavy alcohol use; high intake of red meat; intake of birth control pills in the previous 10 years; and excessive stress.
However, having risk factors does not mean one will certainly have breast cancer in the future. It just means that one’s chances of having it are relatively higher.
Conversely, there are also a lot of cancer patients who don’t have any known risk factor.
Many people with cancer risk factors remain cancer-free all their lives, but it’s good to be forewarned so one can take the necessary precautions like having more antioxidants (fresh fruits and vegetables) in the diet, quitting smoking, avoiding excessive alcohol intake, and having regular checkups.
Many cancers, like breast and colorectal cancers, are actually curable if diagnosed early.
With a better understanding, young women can take action and play a more active role in preventing it, or detecting it early. They should be familiar with their breasts, how they normally look and feel, such that they should be able to spot a problem if something does not look or feel “normal.”
Although the prospect is scary for a young woman, screening mammograms are not recommended for women younger than 40 who are at average risk of breast cancer. Experts recommend a clinical breast exam by a specialist for most women ages 20 to 39.
However, for those at high risk, especially if the physician suspects something after a clinical breast exam, a mammogram should be done.
In fact, for younger women found to have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation which predisposes her to breast cancer, more intensive screening may be necessary at an earlier age. This may include a breast MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) aside from standard mammography and clinical breast exam.
Diagnosis of breast cancer always comes as a shock. It’s always bad news, but the good news is that when diagnosed early, it can be nipped in the bud and the prospect of total cure is good.
I’m sure wherever Jenny is now, she’d be happy at the thought that her case could serve to increase awareness about breast cancer in young women. And every time a young woman is diagnosed early and cured, I’m sure she’d laugh heartily, and with both hands raised, yell out a strong “Yes!”