Young women can, and do, get breast cancer

Greer Davis knows a thing or two about cancer.  Her Mum has had breast cancer.  Her Dad died of brain tumour in 2009.  And at the age of only 25, Greer herself was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The Auckland woman was shell-shocked to discover in 2012 that she had an aggressive form of breast cancer at such a young age. 

“I freaked out.  You just get this knot of fear in your stomach because it’s all so unknown and when they start talking about mastectomies it’s all quite scary,” she says of her diagnosis.

She had sought medical help when she discovered a lump in her breast after several months of tenderness.

A subsequent ultrasound, mammogram and biopsy showed that she had a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer.  She had a mastectomy two days after her diagnosis.

“It was pretty traumatic the first time I looked down and realised my right breast wasn’t there.  I freaked out a bit.  But I was very clear that I wanted the cancer gone - I wanted it out of my body and this was what I had to do.”

Because Greer’s cancer was aggressive, she was told she should follow her surgery with chemotherapy.  As a young woman, she had some concerns about this because chemotherapy can often result in infertility.

“I saw a fertility specialist before I had chemotherapy and that was great because it cleared up a lot of issues for me.  I am young and there’s a good chance I will bounce back and if my fertility doesn’t return I always have the option of using a donor egg from one of my younger sisters.”

Not all young women have a consultation to discuss their options with a fertility specialist before chemotherapy, so Greer’s grateful she had this opportunity.

She had chemotherapy for six months and continued to work in her sales and marketing role for Unilever.  She says losing her hair was one of the hardest parts of the treatment. 

“I felt like I was more attached to my hair than my breast,” she laughs. “But once my hair started to fall out, I just wanted to get rid of it so I shaved it all off.”

Greer finished chemotherapy at the end of last year and is now taking the breast cancer drug tamoxifen.  She’s also been tested for the breast cancer genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2). 

Although she doesn’t have the BRCA genes, she does have an undefined genetic variance which means that she needs to have annual breast screening.  Her two sisters have been advised to do the same and her mother is now also undergoing genetic testing.

Greer says her mother has provided her with a mountain of support. 

“I moved home as soon as I was diagnosed.  My mum’s had breast cancer herself and she was the primary carer for my Dad when he was terminally ill, so it was a hard situation.  But she has been amazing and we were always quite positive that I’d get through it all.”

Greer says she does have fears about the breast cancer recurring, but is determined to remain extra vigilant and live her life to the full.

Now 26, Greer says she is currently single and says it will be challenge to date as a breast cancer survivor.

“It certainly creates a new dimension to any potential relationship.  It does change you and it changes your outlook and expectations of a partner.  And it certainly makes you a bit more guarded in terms of your body image and self-esteem, but it’s not something I’m scared of telling a potential partner about,” she says.

Greer has just recently had reconstruction surgery, but she wants other young women to learn from her experience.

“Women really need to be aware of their bodies, pay attention to any changes and seek medical help if they think something’s not right,” she says.  

“I think young women often think that breast cancer is something that only happens when you become older. But young women can and do get breast cancer.  And if you’re a young woman you need to follow up on any changes early to give yourself the best chance of survival.” 

As part of her commitment to educating other young women about breast cancer, Greer has joined the Breast Cancer Aotearoa Coalition (BCAC) as a committee member.  BCAC recently helped her attended a conference in the USA specifically for young women with breast cancer (C4YW 2013).

Greer was impressed with the resources and support that young women with breast cancer receive in the US and is keen to see what can be done in New Zealand.