It is hard enough to be taken seriously when you are young. Now imagine adding a cancer diagnosis to the mix. When I found the lump in my breast and went to get it checked by a doctor, no one was concerned. I heard so many times, “It can’t be cancer because you are so young and there is no family history.” I went to two different hospitals to finally get my breast cancer diagnosis after I advocated for a biopsy. On August 26, 2015, four months after I originally found the lump and it had now grown to take up my entire breast, I received the call that I had breast cancer. Fast forward three years and I’m still shocked with the lack of knowledge by health care professionals that young people too, can get breast cancer.
My cancer is hormone receptive (the cancer is fed by my hormones) so I have to do hormone therapy for the next 10 years. Just this month I found myself in another teachable moment when I had my monthly Zoladex injection I had a new nurse give it to me. I usually have the same nurse every month and after two years, we had a pretty good rhythm going. But whenever there is a new nurse, the story goes a little like this. They have never heard of this injection and have to take five minutes to read the instructions and even ask me how to give it. They are shocked at how big the needle is. (Yes, I know it is a big needle – I don’t need you to apologize for that.) And, they are shocked at how young I am. (Yes, young people DO get cancer.)
Now I don’t want to cast all nurses in the same light, let’s face it, they are amazing and appreciated for doing the work they do, but I do want them to know there is a better way to approach this. Here’s what not to do:
This month, after meeting a new nurse who was about to inject me, she went a step further and actually asked me why I got breast cancer! This is how the conversation went:
Nurse: What is the medication for?
Me: It’s hormone therapy for breast cancer treatments.
Nurse with a confused look on her face: You’re so young. Why did you get breast cancer? You must have a family history.
Me: Nope. I don’t know why. I just found a lump.
Then she saw my hip to hip scar (the injection is given in my stomach) from my DIEP flap surgery and asked what it was from. She had never heard of this surgery and asked me with a lot of confusion, “You don’t have implants?” I even took my shirt off to educate her on my reconstructed breasts.
I don’t expect every healthcare provider to know everything about breast cancer but to practice across the street from a world class cancer centre and ask a young woman why she got cancer is wrong. I’m nervous for the next 20-something to go to her with a lump in her breast and be turned away because she’s young and has no family history.
Young women get cancer! It’s already isolating enough without having to explain ourselves to shocked faces whenever we see a new healthcare professional. My hope from sharing my story is for everyone to do better the next time. The next young woman will advocate for herself and doesn’t let the tumour grow three times the size because her doctors think it is just normal tissue. The next doctor performs the biopsy that was requested and the next nurse will keep any insensitive questions to herself as putting the onus for a diagnosis on the patient is not the way to go.
Sincerely, a young woman with breast cancer.
Save the date on November 20 when Rethink brings health care professionals and patients together to discuss the communication barriers that exist within our healthcare system at the forum Lost in Transmission: Addressing Gaps in Communication Between Cancer Patients and Health Care Providers.