THE BLOG

How We Can Improve the Lives of Young Breast Cancer Patients

03/02/2015 08:40 EST | Updated 05/02/2015 05:59 EDT

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Not a single day goes by where I'm not thankful to live in Canada with access to healthcare for all. Like most Canadians, I strongly support our health system's public rather than private structure. In fact, I'm extremely proud of our system. Pride aside, my role as the head of Rethink Breast Cancer, a national breast cancer organization leading the young women's breast cancer movement, has opened my eyes to the disparities in care between the provinces and within provinces. And, my charity's focus on young women in particular has shown me that despite our incredible health care system, the unique needs of young breast cancer patients still fall through the cracks.

Last week, Rethink hosted a workshop looking at the breast cancer experience for young women. I spent the day with twenty young women, all from different parts of Canada and all at different stages of their cancer journey. During the pre-meeting breakfast, I overheard one group chatting about children, daycare and schools -- typical young mom stuff. Later on, one young woman mentioned a passion for cake decorating, another was planning on hitting Toronto's vintage clothing shops the next day in search of a distinctive wedding dress, and another woman, almost seven months pregnant, was chuckling about taking time off from wining and dining. There was obviously a lot of discussion about breast cancer -- managing lymphedema, reconstruction challenges, metastasis -- but the day was another reminder that the young women we support and work with are still building their lives. Some are just finishing school or starting careers; others are planning weddings, trying to get pregnant or raising a young family. Our healthcare system needs to consider these young women's lives and not just their tumours.

Young women with breast cancer present our healthcare professionals with difficult cases. They are often diagnosed with aggressive forms of breast cancer that require tough therapies. And the powerful treatments needed to stop the cancer can cause many complex side effects for young women, including early menopause. Because of their life-stage, young breast cancer patients also have many unique practical and psychosocial needs, everything from childcare and financial challenges to feelings of isolation and being overwhelmed by facing huge life decisions earlier than planned.

To help improve the lives of young women with breast cancer, Rethink Breast Cancer, is launching ten Care Guidelines for Young Women with Breast Cancer. These guidelines are a powerful tool for both healthcare workers and young patients to use to uphold the Canadian mandate of healthcare for all, and ensure the very best care for young women with breast cancer.

I know many outstanding breast oncologists, surgeons and oncology nurses who make up healthcare teams that are treating and caring for young women as young women, not just as cases. And, many health care professionals have immediately endorsed our Care Guidelines for Young Women with Breast Cancer because they agree with the importance of holistic care. However, our research shows that in many parts of the country, young women's special needs are not always being addressed. That is why we have worked with both healthcare professionals and young women with breast cancer to create these ten Care Guidelines and are seeking the endorsement of all cancer centres across Canada.

Health Canada and the Canadian Medical Association have established comprehensive clinical practice guidelines for the care and treatment of breast cancer, and our provincial cancer agencies, the Canadian Association of Nurses in Oncology, and the Canadian Association of Psychosocial Oncology have all developed excellent standards of care. These are all designed to ensure the consistent care of cancer patients across our vast country. Rethink Breast Cancer's Care Guidelines for Young Women with Breast Cancer serve as a compliment to these standards. They have been created in an effort to ensure the special needs of young women with breast cancer are addressed in a timely manner no matter where in Canada they live. Young women with breast cancer have unique challenges and needs and we need a consistent approach to addressing those needs.

Young women need our support to ensure these guidelines are universally adopted. I am calling on all Canadians to share the #CareGuidelines with the healthcare community, with young women who have been diagnosed, and with their friends and networks. Together we can close the gap in care for young women with breast cancer.

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