A new program at Levine Cancer Institute addresses the unique physical and emotional needs of young women -- like Sam Labrador, seen here with her family -- who are diagnosed with breast cancer.

News, Women's Health | 2 months ago

Young Women Get Breast Cancer, Too

A new program at Levine Cancer Institute addresses the unique physical and emotional needs of young women diagnosed with breast cancer. 

Two days before Christmas, Samantha Labrador got the news she feared: the lump in her breast was cancer.

Samantha was 26 years old and had an 8-month-old baby boy. A couple weeks earlier, her primary care doctor explained that she was young and healthy – that for women in her situation, lumps are usually milk and no cause for concern.

They played it safe, however, and Samantha came to Levine Cancer Institute. There, it was confirmed: she had Stage 3C breast cancer.

Surprisingly, the diagnosis brought Samantha a sense of calm. Now that her fears were confirmed, she was ready to create a plan and to fight. Doctors at Levine Cancer Institute greeted her with optimism, a hug and the thing she craved most: information to guide decisions and the freedom to choose the treatment plan best for her.

“At Levine Cancer Institute, I felt instantly welcomed,” she says. “My doctors sat there and talked me through everything. I’m that person who asks a hundred questions – there’s never enough statistics for me. But they sat there for an hour and half with me, my mom and my husband, answering all of our questions.”

Samantha had surgery the day after her 27th birthday. The following year, her fight against cancer included chemotherapy and radiation as well. The team at Levine Cancer Institute treated more than her cancer, however; they supported the unique needs she faced as a young woman with breast cancer. The team helped her explain her diagnosis to her young son, they welcomed her son when he came to appointments, and they connected her with other young women facing breast cancer. And now, Samantha has been cancer free for a year and a half.

When her treatments ended, her oncologists – Julie Fisher, MD, and Lejla Hadzikadic-Gusic, MD asked Samantha about her experience as a young woman dealing with breast cancer. The doctors invited her, as well as other young women who faced breast cancer at Levine Cancer Institute, to join an advisory board that would guide an important project that the two oncologists co-chair: the Sandra Levine Young Women’s Breast Cancer Program.

Breast Cancer in Young Women

Young women account for 6 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses. The share of the group may be small, but the size of it is not: Last year, almost 13,000 women under 40 learned they had breast cancer.

Young women experience breast cancer differently than older women. Their cancer tends to be more aggressive, and they often respond differently to treatments. In addition, the question of preserving fertility can complicate treatment decisions. But because this group has been such a small fraction of all breast cancer patients, their specific needs have largely been neglected.

The Sandra Levine Young Women’s Breast Cancer Program is changing that. This program is the only one of its kind in the region and only one of a few in the country. It offers a multidisciplinary team of providers – medical, radiation and surgical oncologists, breast nurses, reconstructive surgeons, pathologists, radiologists and patient navigators – who help young women dealing with breast cancer, and the biological, emotional and practical needs that come with the disease.

“Many of our patients are still active in the workforce, many are parenting young children or wanting to start families, and that offers up a different set of demands than someone else going through a breast cancer diagnosis at another point in life,” says Dr. Fisher.

To answer the biological questions, the program offers clinical trials designed specifically for women under 40. Dr. Hadzikadic-Gusic and Dr. Fisher believe more research is needed to answer the big questions. Why can breast cancer in young women be more aggressive than in post-menopausal women? Why do younger women experience different side effects during treatments?

“We have phenomenal potential to answer these questions, and we are on the leading edge of diagnosing and treating this disease in younger women,” says Dr. Hadzikadic-Gusic 

The Importance of Emotional Support

It’s not just women’s physical needs that the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Program meets. The program offers emotional support services, allowing women facing breast cancer to connect in support groups and even one-on-one with a survivor. They can share their feelings and questions with others who understand. To increase wellness, the women have access to Levine Cancer Institute’s department of supportive oncology, which can incorporate yoga, tai chi, healing touch and acupuncture into their treatment plan. The program even offers classes at Levine Cancer Institute that women can attend with their children to help kids understand what their moms are experiencing.

Doctors here are sensitive as well to body issues that young women may encounter after a mastectomy, and treat those issues with due sensitivity and importance.

“We help younger women cope with these things and allow them to talk to other women their age dealing with them,” says Dr. Hadzikadic-Gusic. “We want to keep them feeling positive and truly feeling like survivors.”

Care Designed For Survivors, By Survivors

The experts who design these offerings aren’t just medical professionals. They’re survivors like Samantha. Dr. Hadzikadic-Gusic and Dr. Fisher created an advisory panel of about 20 survivors, and each time the co-chairs consider a new offering, they ask the women: Is this what you need? Would this make your journey easier?

“We have a team that is completely and entirely dedicated to getting you through this,” Dr. Hadzikadic-Gusic tells women. “We’re going to get you through. So even if you do forget something – because maybe you have an eight-month-old at home or maybe because you’re wondering how to pay for this – the point of this program is to hit everything we need to hit so you can be certain that everything is taken care of.”

Many patients have told Dr. Hadzikadic-Gusic that she has a great team at Levine Cancer Institute. While flattering, it’s a compliment that she’s not willing to accept.

“I have to correct people all the time, saying, ‘I’m lucky to be a part of this team, but they’re not my team. We’re all your team, and we’re all doing this for you.’”

To learn more about the Sandra Levine Young Women’s Breast Cancer Program, please visit Breast Cancer Care at Levine Cancer Institute or call 704-302-9270.