Monday, May 11, 2009

'You're Too Young for Breast Cancer'

You need to be taken seriously, no matter your age. As someone who went through breast cancer at a young age, I can speak to the younger person's perspective. I'm using my experience, but you could substitute any condition, and the activism involved is the same process.

Quite a number of doctors told me I was too young for cancer, even while a tumor was growing in my right breast. (Trust me, I fired all these jokers, replacing them with real doctors who listened to my concerns and took me seriously.)

I had a negative baseline mammogram only a few months before I found my own breast cancer through my regular monthly exam. The mammogram report was ominous: it said it was negative for any abnormalities, but that my breast tissue was exceedingly dense, so this was a limitation. (Dense breast tissue looks white on a mammogram. The problem, especially for many younger women, is that tumors are also white on a mammogram.)

Looking back, I wish I hadn't passively allowed that good test result lull me into a false sense of security.

Because my tumor was still there.

A few months later, still thinking I was healthy, I went to my trusted gynecologist for my routine exam. He found nothing wrong, so thumbs-up! When I questioned the "dense breast tissue" comment on the report, he assured me that I was too young for breast cancer.

It wasn't until I did my monthly breast exam a couple of weeks later that I saw a slight dimple in my right breast. I was scared, but I kept reassuring myself with his words that I was too young for cancer. But just to be on the safe side, I went to him for another exam and told him what I found. He couldn't find it at first, but then he felt a slight lump and said it probably was nothing, but that he'd refer me to the hospital's breast center just in case.

And a technician with the vision of a hawk found the tumor -- despite the whiteness dominating the X-ray.

Younger women (and any women with dense breast tissue for that matter) have more difficulty in with the accuracy of mammogram than their older counterparts. Don't get me wrong; mammograms are a must and still are the gold standard. But with this test, older women tend to have the advantage. As women age, their breast tissue is less dense and shows up as black on the X-ray, so a white tumor lights up like a torch.

So here's my advice to all readers out there: be wary of any doctor who tells you that you are too young for certain conditions. Young people get sick, and a visit to any children's hospital should humble the most dismissive of doctors.

I was grateful to this doctor for referring me to this specialized breast center. That saved my life. But he didn't save my life; I did. Because he was lulled into complacency that younger people -- especially physically fit ones with no history of major illness -- don't get breast cancer, he dropped the ball.

So I dropped that doctor.

It took my vigilance to save my life.

That being said, medical science needs to change to accommodate younger women and others with dense breast tissue. Doctors should refer such women to MRIs and/or ultrasounds, which pick up what a mammogram might miss.

Mammograms are still very useful and have saved many lives, which is why they are still the gold standard. But as medical science changes and as the profile of the patient changes, diagnostic testing must also change.

We are so inundated with information on mammograms, that we as a society have lost sight of those women with dense breast tissue. And perhaps insurance companies prefer the mammogram to the MRI because the latter is more expensive.

But why should that matter? Because saving a human life -- whether by mammogram, MRI, or ultrasound -- is priceless.

Beth L. Gainer is a professional writer and has published an essay on her breast cancer experience in the anthology Voices of Breast Cancer by LaChance Publishing. She teaches writing and literature at Robert Morris University in the Chicago area. She can be contacted at and



  1. Another excellent article. It's so true: we want our doctors to tell us what we want to hear so we can feel ok about it, but it's always wise to be more proactive.

  2. Yes, unfortunately, people who seem to be healthy often assume they are. The problem is when doctors think they are healthy, just because they are young and look fit.

  3. Another great blog post. Thanks for your contribution to Take Charge of Your Health Care Carnival. It is important for patients to follow their own instincts with their health, and as you experienced, it is always important to get that 2nd and even 3rd opinion.

  4. Thanks, Helene, for posting my blogs. Your blog carnival is excellent, which is why I plan to continue to submit. The content is great, providing useful information for readers. I have read several.

    Thanks again for all the excellent work you do!!