'Lightning Strikes' When Young Girls Get Breast Cancer

Lightning Strikes When Young Girls Get Breast Cancer

Taylor Thompson was planning to spend her summer vacation by the pool with friends. Instead, she spent a month becoming very familiar with her hospital in Little Rock, Ark.

It started with a casual mention to her mother that she felt a quarter-sized lump in her right breast. Doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer. She was 13 years old.

"I couldn't tell her, I was just crying," said her mother, Stephanie Anderson, when she learned of Taylor's diagnosis. "I thought, 'How am I going to explain this to my 13-year-old daughter about breast cancer?' When I tried to talk to her, it just would not come out."

The lump Thompson found in her breast was a type of fast-growing, potentially malignant tumor generally found in premenopausal women, not in girls Thompson's age.

In fact, oncologists said finding cancerous breast cells in girls as young as Thompson is akin to being struck by lightning.

And while breast cancer is overwhelming at any age, women who get the disease in their twenties, their teens or younger face a host of unique issues that complicate an already devastating diagnosis.

"They face issues all breast cancer patients face -- dealing with a potentially life-threatening illness, mortality, toxic treatments, breast surgery," said Dr. Ann Partridge, director of the Young Women and Breast Cancer program at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Mass. "But a person who is young deals with those at an age when they have their own [problems] so these are accentuated."

Breast Cancer in Young Patients Is Rare

Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among women ages 15-54, according to the National Cancer Institute, but breast cancer in young women -- under age 40 -- is very rare.

The chances of a woman getting breast cancer in her thirties is one in 250. In her twenties it is one in 2,000. The chances decrease the younger a woman is, Partridge said.

"I was kind of scared [of cancer], but not at the time," Thompson said. "I was thinking more about my family than myself... I was just telling myself it was going to be OK."

The prospect of surgery scared Thompson less than whether doctors would be able to remove all of the cancerous tissue during her lumpectomy.

"It's rare that we see invasive breast cancer... in someone so young," said Dr. Ronda Henry-Tillman, a breast oncologist who treated Thompson at the Rockefeller Cancer Institute at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. "This case makes us know that we can't exclude it in younger patients."

Practical Problems Abound for Young Breast Cancer Patients

In May, Elizabeth Bryndza, a 19-year-old sophomore at the College of New Jersey, underwent a bilateral mastectomy to remove both breasts. Two weeks before, she had found a lump of cancerous cells in her right breast.

"I never thought that I wouldn't survive it," said Bryndza, now 20. "I'm still going to be me, and I'll fight as hard as I can."

But there are practical problems that make younger women more vulnerable than older women to the challenges of a breast cancer diagnosis.

Young women are more likely to be treated aggressively for breast cancer than older women because, since they've rarely had regular screenings or mammograms, they are less likely to detect early-stage tumors. Young age is an independent risk factor for recurrent cancer, regardless of a family history of cancer, or a genetic predisposition to have BRCA gene mutations.

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