Never Too Young: Two Local Women Share Why You Are Never Too Young for Breast Cancer
Over 250,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, seven percent under the age of 40. As Breast Cancer Awareness month comes to a close, two local women share their stories of fighting breast cancer in their thirties, one now fighting for her second time.
"I was first diagnosed in 2003, and I was 35 at the time."
Seven percent of women are diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 40. Michelle Wagner is one woman part of that devastating statistic. With no family history her diagnosis was shocking.
"At the age of 35, you're always the youngest one in the room," explained Wagner.
Her cancer was stage 0 and contained in her left breast. She had two unsuccessful lumpectomy's that led to a full mastectomy. But she's not alone in her young diagnosis.
Erie native Melissa Frohmyer received the news that she had stage three breast cancer in 2010. She was only 30 at the time.
"I actually found the lump myself just doing a check, before I went in to my OBGYN yearly appointment," said Frohmyer.
Frohmyer's surgeons told her the cancer could have been there for two or three years. She had two rounds of chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, then six more rounds of chemo.
"Breast cancer really doesn't recognize any one demographic in which to affect," said Dr. Gregory Engel.
Dr. Engel is a surgeon at UPMC Hamot seeing hundreds of cases each year. He said although it is more uncommon for women to be diagnosed younger, it does happen.
"Your greatest risk for getting breast cancer is being female, your second biggest risk is age," said Dr. Engel.
As Michelle got older, and that risk became greater, she began experiencing hip pain, which led to her learning the cancer had returned as stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in her hips, spine and sternum.
"Once we heard that I was stage four we thought that was it. But now I've learned that stage four is not always a death sentence," explained Wagner.
It's been seven years since her second diagnosis, she has been on targeted treatment, receiving her drugs every three weeks. This treatment goes directly to the cancer cells without going through the whole body. This allows her to bypass the typical challenges of chemotherapy.
Unlike Melissa, who's rounds of chemotherapy caused her to lose her hair and receive other long-lasting symptoms, including early menopause. But the Erie mom's biggest struggle came after the chemotherapy, when she wanted to have another child.
She was told her chances were slim to none, but after a miscarriage, they conceived another daughter.
"We did not expect that to happen, or expect her to be a completely healthy baby, or to have a completely healthy pregnancy. It was a blessing for sure," she said.
"Both women are advocates for knowing your body. Because breast cancer can happen to anyone. I have breast cancer on both sides of my family. and at 21-years-old, I had a mammogram, for what was luckily just a benign mass of dense tissue. But because of my family history, mammograms and clinical exams will begin even younger and become frequent as I get older," said Erie News Now Brittany Lauffer.
"If you have a strong family history, that adds in your risk calculation, we recommend starting at age 35. If you have a family member diagnosed in their thirties, you may want to consider starting even earlier," recommended Dr. Engel.
Mammograms, 3-D mammograms, and sonograms are all used for screening for breast cancer. The problem with mammograms in younger women, is their breasts are more dense, making it difficult or impossible to see any masses.
Whether you have a high risk or not, Dr. Engel said diet and exercise do help lower your risk of any type of cancer. He also recommended clinical exams, and encourage self-exams starting as early as high school. While breast cancer in young women is rare, it tends to be more aggressive.
Self exams are only needed to be done occasionally, to get to know what your normal feels like, so when something does feel different, you know to call your doctor.
"Lumps and bumps aren't necessarily a problem, unless they are changing," he explained.
Melissa said knowing her body and what changed is why she is still here today.
"I am a firm believer that that saved my life... You have to be your own advocate. Especially when you're young," said Frohmyer.
Helping women through their own battles is now a passion for both women. They share their experiences with a local support group for young women called "Linked by Pink."
"Everything is going to be different for each individual. I am in a support group of women, even though there is some of us that have the very exact diagnosis, our journey has not been the same," said Wagner.
If you do have a concern, or notice a change in your breasts, Dr. Engel recommends you contact your physician.
For information on Linked By Pink, visit their website: http://www.linkedbypink.org/
For information from the Young Survival Coalition: https://www.youngsurvival.org/
For information on the Regional Cancer Center: http://www.trcc.org/
For information from the National Cancer Institute: https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast