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Health > Body of Knowledge7/14/10 IS Online

Breast Cancer and Young Women

Breast cancer can strike at any age.

By Melanie Yamaguchi

At 31 years old, Roz Makaula was in the best shape of her life. She worked out at the gym five days a week, hiked, surfed, and was starting hula lessons. At such a young age and leading an active lifestyle, she never thought she would hear “I’m sorry, it’s cancer,” from her doctor. Makaula is proof that breast cancer can strike women at any age.

Breast cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers among women in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, about 207,000 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. In Hawai‘i, about 900 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Although the chances of getting it are higher for older women, there is still a 1 in 68 chance that a woman under age 40 will be diagnosed. Breast cancer in younger women is usually more aggressive and less likely to respond to treatment. But the earlier it is detected, the easier it is to treat.

Mammogram screenings to detect breast cancer are recommended for women age 40 and older. But women starting at age 20 are advised to perform breast self-exams at least once a month and to go for a breast physical exam by a doctor every three years.

“A lot of times, the patient needs to be an advocate for themselves and they need to help the physicians help them,” says Clayton Chong, M.D., an oncologist at The Queen’s Medical Center’s Cancer Center and an HMSA participating provider.

Breast cancer can certainly be scary for those who have it. Often, undergoing treatments, such as surgery and chemotherapy, are the most stressful parts of the experience. Makaula underwent five surgeries and chemotherapy treatment for more than a year. She is the only one in her family who was born with platinum blond hair, so losing this prized possession to chemotherapy was difficult.

Still, Makaula feels that her experience brought many blessings that outweighed the stresses and pressures of having cancer. It strengthened her family relationships. She also created new friendships with other breast cancer patients.

Makaula and other women share their cancer treatment experience in A Journey of Hope: When a Young Woman Gets Breast Cancer, a film that received a grant by the HMSA Foundation.

Breast cancer survivor, Darci Ludington, believes that her cancer was detected early because of her pregnancy, and that her daughter helped save her life. She was diagnosed when she was seven months pregnant, at age 28. “Without the pregnancy hormones, the cancer wouldn’t have grown to a detectable size,” Ludington says about her early diagnosis.

The most surprising gift for Makaula was learning and understanding how to care for her father, who was her primary caregiver. He was diagnosed with cancer when she was recovering from her own cancer treatments. She says having breast cancer helped her provide the same kind of care that he gave to her.

Makaula assures breast cancer patients that there is hope and the experience can lead to great things. “If you hear a doctor say to you ‘I’m sorry, it’s cancer,’ know that that does not mean death; that it can mean life – a very good one,” she says.


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