“I was 36 years old when I first felt the lump in my breast,” Diana remembers. “I had been married for three years, and we had been trying to have a baby for two of those years.”
Breast cancer in very young women is considered a rare disease. When you look at the global population of breast cancer patients, those who are under 40 years of age represent a pretty small proportion. But when you zoom in on specific regions of the world, the picture changes a bit: breast cancer in young women is much more common in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), compared to developed countries.
“We tried unsuccessfully to have a baby for two years, so we were about to visit a fertility specialist when I felt the lump.” Diana was eventually diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer and her doctor recommended chemotherapy and radiation therapy. “I was devastated because I thought that the chemotherapy would prevent me from ever becoming pregnant.”
Reproductive and sexual health are just some of the many facets of a young woman’s life that are affected by a diagnosis of breast cancer. She may have young children to care for, parents to support, and a full-time job to pay the bills. Although a breast cancer diagnosis is devastating for any individual, the costs to family and society are greater when such a young patient is affected.
However, despite the higher burden of this disease in LMICs, the needs and concerns of these young women – and even the unique characteristics of their disease – are not well known or addressed.
That’s why Dr. Cynthia Villarreal decided to start a Young Women’s Breast Cancer Database to collect important information – everything from quality of life and psychosocial factors to fertility and clinical characteristics – from this unique and understudied patient population. This way, we can begin to understand how to better help and empower young women with breast cancer throughout their treatment, recovery, and life afterwards.
The database is comprised of several different questionnaires that young women can fill out on tablets while they’re in the waiting room before an appointment. Cynthia implemented these questionnaires as part of a program she initiated at her hospital, which connects these young women to the resources they need to understand fertility-preserving options, learn about important genetic testing, and access community services and support groups.
“I thought that after chemotherapy, I could never become pregnant in my life, and I was devastated,” Diana explains. “However, when I visited my oncologist, she explained that there were several options we could try to become pregnant in the future. She referred me to a fertility specialist.”
Cynthia’s project is starting in Mexico, but she is working with us here at GCI to make the breast cancer database go global. With more women participating in this effort, we can collect more data and understand even more about how breast cancer affects young women around the world. Are there aspects of the disease that are common to all young women? Are there regional or ethnic trends in how the disease presents itself? What risk factors predispose certain young women to breast cancer? What are the most important resources to provide to young women with breast cancer?
All of these questions and more will help to clarify this complex and devastating disease, and will allow oncologists like Cynthia to better serve and support their patients. By expanding the global reach of the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Database, we are expanding the amount of knowledge we have at our fingertips and our ability to understand the plight of young women with breast cancer about the world. This way, GCI can help patients like Diana access important resources that will improve not only their breast cancer outcomes, but their quality of life.
“I am so grateful that my oncologist and her team were concerned about my fertility, understood my concerns, and were able to refer me and my husband to someone who could help. Thanks to this, I am optimistically fighting my cancer and excited about my future possibilities of pregnancy!”