You’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, and your head is probably spinning. For young women going through it, the psychological distress and isolation can be especially overwhelming. Confusion and fear can get in the way of thinking clearly and getting proactive. But we believe that knowledge is power and the only way you can properly advocate for yourself is to be informed.
Young women need the right care at the right time no matter where they live in our country. We believe that, as a young woman with breast cancer, you are entitled to a standard of care that is tailored to your unique needs. Read through our Care Guidelines for Young Women With Breast Cancer to learn about the important issues you should be discussing with your healthcare team.
Understanding Your Breast Cancer
Studies show that many women are not familiar with the characteristics of their specific breast cancer. You may want to bury your head in the sand, but knowing some basic facts can empower you to make important decisions affecting your treatment and care.
Here are some key tumour characteristics that you should be familiar with. If you’re unclear about the answers to any of these questions, ask your doctor to help you better understand your diagnosis.
1 – What is the stage of your breast cancer? The stage of breast cancer refers to how advanced your cancer is in terms of its ability to spread throughout your body. It is determined based on the size of the tumour, the number of lymph nodes affected, whether it has invaded the surrounding tissue, and if it has spread to other parts of the body. Breast cancer can be staged from 0 to 4, with various sub-stages in between. Breast cancer stage can help your doctor determine your prognosis.
2 – What is the grade of your cancer? Tumour grade looks at how abnormal the cells appear in your tumour – the more wonky the cells look, the more your tumour is thought to be “poorly-differentiated” and higher grade. Higher grade tumours tend to grow faster and be more aggressive. In breast cancer, your cancer is given a grade of 1, 2, or 3. Tumour grade can be very important in determining your treatment plan, as lower grade tumours tend to need less aggressive treatment. Unfortunately, breast cancer in younger women tends to be higher-grade, and more aggressive than it is in older women.
3 – Is your cancer type HER2-positive? If you are HER2-positive, this means your cancer cells make an excess of a type of protein that promotes the growth of cancer cells. Although this type of breast cancer tends to be aggressive, there have been many important breakthroughs for HER2+ cancer, particularly with a drug called Herceptin that has been shown to significantly improve survival rates for women with HER2+ breast cancer. HER2+ on its own may be seen as a negative prognostic factor, but scientists have figured out how to target it, and personalize your treatment to attack those pesky cells.
4 – Is your breast cancer estrogen receptor-positive? Estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) breast cancer has cancer cells that may receive signals from estrogen that will promote cell growth. Knowing your breast cancer hormone status is a critical factor in planning your treatment, as there are various drugs and methods that can help manage the estrogen in your body and its ability to activate cancer cells. A common drug that many ER+ women take to prevent recurrence is called Tamoxifen, which is taken orally in pill form. These medications or other treatment options such as ovarian suppression can have side effects that may affect your quality of life. It’s important to understand your ER+ status so you can better understand your risk of recurrence and discuss your options with your oncologist. There are ways to help with unpleasant side effects and there may be alternatives to help deal with the ER+ side of your cancer. So make sure to speak up if you have questions or concerns.
5 – Is your breast cancer triple-negative? Triple negative breast cancer lacks the receptors that fuel other breast cancers – estrogen (ER+), progesterone (PR+) or human epidermal growth factor 2 (HER2+). If your breast cancer tests ER-, PR- and HER2-, it is called triple negative. This type of breast cancer is typically responsive to chemotherapy but cannot be treated with targeted or hormonal therapies such as Herceptin or Tamoxifen. Many young women with triple negative breast cancer carry a mutation in their BRCA1 or BRAC2 genes, which greatly increases their breast and ovarian cancer risk. Speak to your doctor about getting a genetic test if you are diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, as carrying a genetic mutation can impact your treatment plan. You can find out more about being at high risk for breast cancer here.