A discovery of a gene mutation, an MRI, a core needle biopsy and a diagnosis of Stage 0 breast cancer was reality of college freshman Molly May four years ago.
Breast cancer accounts for 15 percent of all cancer diagnoses in individuals ages 15 to 39. Not only is a breast cancer diagnosis possible for college age individuals, but it is more aggressive in younger patients and has a lower survival rate, according to the Young Survival Coalition.
“When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was 8-years-old. Our entire lives changed,” May said. “During my mother’s journey, we found out she carried the BRCA1 gene mutation, one she inherited from her mother, that connected us to breast cancer.”
In the U.S., any person can have the genetic testing done to find out if he or she carries the genetic mutation for breast cancer. May chose to have the testing done her freshman year of college.
“After my diagnosis with stage 0 breast cancer, my double mastectomy was scheduled for three weeks later and reconstruction six months after that, making me the youngest person in the state of Mississippi to ever undergo the procedure,” May said.
Nearly 80 percent of young women diagnosed with breast cancer find their breast abnormality themselves. Screening tests are used to find breast cancer before it causes any warning signs or symptoms. Screening tests can find breast cancer early, when the chances of survival are highest.
Regular screening tests reduce chances of dying from breast cancer, according to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
Breast cancer screening tests include clinical breast exam and mammography. A breast MRI may also be used for women at higher than average risk of breast cancer.
“Know your family history and simply talk to your family and find out what runs in your family be it cancer, heart disease, diabetes or other illnesses or diseases,” May said.
May added that life is one giant test and one should not walk through it blindly.
It is recommended that men and women perform a self-breast examination once a month. This involves pressing into the breasts and feeling for any lumps or bumps.
“My mother found a lump and she knew something was wrong when she noticed one day that it had changed shape,” May said. “Breast cancer is not an ‘old woman’s disease’ and your age does not make you invincible.”
One in eight women and one in 1000 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. This includes diagnoses in stage 0 and stage 4.
The University Health Services at Bennett Infirmary offer routine breast examinations and education on how to perform self-breast examinations.
“We encourage any student that has any concerns or any new lumps or symptoms of breast cancer to come talk to one of our providers at the infirmary,” said Theresa Dawson, director for health services. “If a student needs a service that we cannot provide, then we would work to see that they obtain the services they need in a timely manner.”
There are some factors that affect breast cancer risk at a great amount and others by only a small amount. Age is a risk factor for breast cancer in both women and men. Women who have 2-3 alcoholic drinks per day have about a 20 percent higher risk of breast cancer than non-drinkers.
Women who get regular exercise have about a 10-20 percent lower risk of breast cancer than women who are not active. A family history of certain types of cancer can increase the risk of breast cancer. Eating vegetables and fruits may slightly lower the risk of some breast cancers.
May added she knows the frailty of life simply because someone looked at her and said “we need to do something now or this could kill you.”
“This was only reinforced when I was diagnosed,” May said. “While my friends were out partying, I was signing Do Not Resuscitate forms and making a will.”
Four years after her encounter with breast cancer, May dedicated her time to breast cancer awareness advocacy. She works as the fund development coordinator for Susan G Komen foundation and designs jewelry lines to raise funds for breast cancer research. May also wrote a book about her battle called, “My Crowning Achievement: Beating Cancer.”
“My entire life is painted in pink and I remind myself that I am expert of this chosen passion and that it is my life’s calling,” May said. “I look back on my lived experience with breast cancer and realize that I did just that: I lived through it, and I am not going to stop until it doesn’t have to be an experience for anyone else.”