No woman ever wants to hear the words "It's breast cancer." And certainly no one expects to hear those words in her 30s.
At 37 years old, I was a mom of three young children aged two, three and six. Life was full, loud and busy! I ate healthily, snuck in exercise whenever I could, volunteered in my community, and enjoyed time with my husband and friends. All of my relatives had lived long, cancer-free lives, and I assumed the same would be true for me. Life was rolling along the way it was supposed to.
One evening I attended a Rethink Breast Cancer fundraiser with some friends -- simply for a fun night out for a good cause. Rethink is a Canadian charity that works specifically with younger women diagnosed with breast cancer. We had a great time but something that Rethink's founder and director, MJ DeCoteau, said that night in her speech resonated with me.
I went home and checked my breasts. I found a lump. After several weeks of tests it was confirmed to be breast cancer. Over the next year, I had a mastectomy, six rounds of chemotherapy, five weeks of radiation, 17 doses of Herceptin (a specialized drug given intravenously) and four years later I am still on a daily pill of Tamoxifen.
While I knew the surgeons and oncologists were taking care of my physical needs, I truly struggled emotionally. I needed to find support systems that could help me manage my fears, and in particular, as a mom with a young family, I needed to learn how to help my family cope as well.
During treatment, I became involved in Rethink's various support systems. I was amazed at how helpful it was to talk to other young women who "got" what I was going through -- and had the same fears as me. Having friends along the way made my own journey much more manageable and much less isolating.
So how do you go about finding support that suits your needs? Here are a few places to start:
Looking back, I realize that I have tapped in to various aspects of every support system listed above, and they have all filled a different need at different times of my treatment and beyond. The emotional aspects of breast cancer extend well past the treatment period, and while I call myself a "survivor" now, I continue to seek out support when I need it. No one needs to face breast cancer alone.
Results of a massive gene analysis, published last month in the journal <em>Nature</em>, shows that there are <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/24/four-breast-cancer-types-genetics-genes_n_1909116.html">four major classes</a> of breast cancer, the Associated Press reported. "With this study, we're one giant step closer to understanding the genetic origins of the <a href="http://www.siteman.wustl.edu/ContentPage.aspx?id=6431">four major subtypes of breast cancer</a>," study researcher Matthew Ellis, M.B., B.Chir., Ph.D., of the Washington University School of Medicine and the Siteman Cancer Center, said in a statement. "Now, we can investigate which drugs work best for patients based on the genetic profiles of their tumors," he added in the statement. "For basal-like breast tumors, it's clear they are genetically more similar to ovarian tumors than to other breast cancers. Whether they can be treated the same way is an intriguing possibility that needs to be explored."
Men are less likely to get breast cancer than women -- but when they do, it's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/04/breast-cancer-men_n_1479739.html">often deadlier</a>, according to a study presented earlier this year at the American Society of Breast Surgeons meeting. The Associated Press reported that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/04/breast-cancer-men_n_1479739.html">men diagnosed with breast cancer</a> live, on average, two fewer years than women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, and are also more likely to have the breast cancer spread, have larger tumors when the cancer is discovered, and be diagnosed later.
Cadmium -- a toxic metal that can be present in foods like shellfish, root vegetables, offal and cereals -- may <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/15/cadmium-breast-cancer-intake_n_1347523.html">raise risk of breast cancer</a>, according to a March 2012 study in the journal <em>Cancer Research</em>. The research included 56,000 women. Researchers were able to analyze about how much cadmium each woman was consuming based on the cadmium-rich foods in her diet. They found that those who <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/15/cadmium-breast-cancer-intake_n_1347523.html">consumed the most cadmium</a> had a 21 percent higher breast cancer risk, compared with those who consumed the least cadmium, HuffPost's Catherine Pearson reported.
Getting six or fewer hours of sleep <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/06/sleep-breast-cancer-aggressive-deprivation_n_1854658.html">may raise the risk of recurrent breast cancer</a> among post-menopausal breast cancer patients, according to a study in the journal <em>Breast Cancer Research and Treatment</em>. However, this same link was not observed for pre-menopausal breast cancer patients. The findings suggest "that <a href="http://www.uhhospitals.org/about/media-news-room/current-news/2012/08/lack-of-sleep-found-to-be-a-new-risk-factor-for-aggressive-breast-cancers">lack of sufficient sleep</a> may cause more aggressive tumors, but more research will need to be done to verify this finding and understand the causes of this association," study researcher Cheryl Thompson, Ph.D. said in the statement.
A <a href="http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-10/acos-afo092712.php">smallpox virus</a> seems to be promising against a hard-to-treat form of breast cancer, called triple-negative breast cancer, according to a study in mice presented at the 2012 Annual Clinical Congress of the American College of Surgeons. "Based upon pathology, we could see that at least 60 percent of the <a href="http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-10/acos-afo092712.php">tumors were completely regressed</a> and the other 40 percent had very little areas of tumor cells present with a lot of necrosis, which is a sign that the tumor was responding to therapy," study researcher Dr. Sepideh Gholami, M.D., of Stanford University Medical Center, said in a statement. ABC News pointed out that this <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2012/10/01/smallpox-virus-may-help-treat-deadly-form-of-breast-cancer/">kind of breast cancer is notoriously hard to treat</a> because it doesn't respond to other hormonal or immune treatments.
Working the night shift is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, according to two different studies that came out this year. One of them, published in the journal <em>Occupational and Environmental Medicine</em>, showed that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/30/shift-work-breast-cancer-risk_n_1553058.html">breast cancer risk went up </a>among women who worked the night shift more than twice a week, with the risk being the highest among those who said that they are "morning people" instead of "night people." <em>The Toronto Sun</em> reported that the results of this study confirm the findings of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which has a list of items and <a href="http://www.torontosun.com/2012/05/29/night-shift-work-linked-to-breast-cancer-risk">habits that may cause cancer</a>. The IARC considers shift work "possibly carcinogenic." The other study, published in the <em>International Journal of Cancer</em>, showed that breast cancer risk is 30 percent higher for <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/01/shift-work-breast-cancer-night-sleep_n_1612486.html">women who work the night shift</a>, with the risk being especially clear among those working night-time jobs for four years, or those who worked the night shift for three or fewer nights a week.
The genes that help determine a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/05/breast-cancer-risk-breast-size-study_n_1652292.html">woman's breast size</a> may also be linked with her breast cancer risk, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal <em>BMC Medical Genetics</em>. Researchers examined the genetic data of 16,000 women to find that seven DNA variations, called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), seem to be <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/05/breast-cancer-risk-breast-size-study_n_1652292.html">linked with breast size</a> -- and three of those SNPs are known to be associated with a person's risk of breast cancer, HuffPost's Catherine Pearson reported.
Just a little bit of exercise may help to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/25/exercise-breast-cancer-risk-moderate_n_1619175.html">reduce your risk of breast cancer</a>, though the more you move, the better, according to a study in the journal <em>CANCER</em>. Researchers at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill found that postmenopausal or reproductive-age women in their study who exercised the most -- from 10 to 19 hours each week -- had a 30 percent <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/25/exercise-breast-cancer-risk-moderate_n_1619175.html">lower risk of breast cancer</a>, though exercising less than that was still linked with some protective benefits. "The observation of a reduced risk of breast cancer for women who <a href="http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-06/w-eem062012.php">engaged in exercise after menopause</a> is particularly encouraging given the late age of onset for breast cancer," study researcher Lauren McCullough said in a statement.
For post-menopausal women, <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/9541796/Breast-cancer-risk-raised-by-Type-2-diabetes.html">having Type 2 diabetes</a> may raise the risk of breast cancer, according to a review conducted by the International Prevention Research Institute. "On the one hand, it's thought that being overweight, often <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/9541796/Breast-cancer-risk-raised-by-Type-2-diabetes.html">associated with Type 2 diabetes</a>, and the effect this has on hormone activity may be partly responsible for the processes that lead to cancer growth," study researcher Peter Boyle, the president of the International Prevention Research Institute, told <em>The Telegraph</em>. "But it's also impossible to rule out that some factors related to diabetes may be involved in the process."
Being overweight could lead to worse outcomes from breast cancer, according to a study published August in the journal <em>Cancer</em>. Specifically, the study showed that overweight women who have been treated for breast cancer have a <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/48800019/ns/health-cancer/t/being-overweight-tied-breast-cancer-return-death/#.UGxtN_mfGPI">higher risk of recurrence and death</a>, NBC News reported. "Obesity seemed to carry a <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/48800019/ns/health-cancer/t/being-overweight-tied-breast-cancer-return-death/#.UGxtN_mfGPI">higher risk of breast cancer</a> recurrence and death -- even in women who were healthy at the time that they were diagnosed, and despite the fact that they received the best available chemotherapy and hormone therapy," study researcher Dr. Joseph Sparano, associate chairman of medical oncology at the Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care, told NBC News.
Marisa Weiss, MD, of breast cancer.org, explains the different breast cancer stages and what they mean.