Breast cancer is more visible than ever, but young survivors still fight to be seen
Valerie Bunt doesn’t look like your typical breast cancer survivor.
A mother to a thriving 8-year-old, Bunt usually spends her days working in her family’s legal headhunting firm and caring for her daughter. She has long brown hair, with no evidence of the toll of chemotherapy. And strangers don’t know about her surgery scars that stretch over her chest and behind her right shoulder.
But what throws people off most is her age.
At 33, Bunt flies under the survivor radar at breast cancer events or at hospital appointments. One woman even praised her for wearing a breast-cancer shirt and “being a great supporter.”
“It happens,” she said later that day, recounting the long journey from before her diagnosis in 2011 to her status now as a survivor. “They don’t think it’s me. And then they ask, ‘How old are you?’ They don’t know anyone who’s been in that scenario.”
Breast cancer is an increasingly visible cause — especially in October, when “the whole world turns pink” for breast cancer awareness month, said Bunt’s stepmother, Abbe. But survivors under 40, a small but increasing fraction of those diagnosed with the disease, say they are combating the perception that breast cancer is an older woman’s disease.
Many of them didn’t expect a diagnosis in their first decade or two of adulthood, before mammograms are recommended for screening. Nor did some of their early doctors, who initially discounted the possibility their lumps might be cancerous.
“I was one of those people who believed young kids got cancer or older people got cancer. I thought the middle age was OK,” Bunt said.
About 7 percent of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are under 40, though the number of new cases has slowly been increasing since the mid-1990s, according to the American Cancer Society. Part of the reason, said Carmen Calfa, Bunt’s oncologist at the Sylvester Cancer Center at the University of Miami, is that certain protective factors like having children earlier and breastfeeding are declining. Other factors involving hormonal changes can also play a role, she said.
When cancer does surface in younger patients, it tends to be more aggressive and more advanced, she added. “It’s a different biology when cancer happens at a younger age.”
Those earlier and more aggressive onsets mean younger patients also face different challenges. They have to determine how to balance budding careers, fertility issues and, given their life expectancies, how to manage longer-term care after they are diagnosed.
Being diagnosed when younger can also leave more of an impression on friends and family, if only because it is rare, said Gladys Giron, a surgical oncologist at the Miami Cancer Institute. “Who expects a 35-year-old to have a breast cancer diagnosis, or someone in their 20s? Because they’re younger, they don’t expect that.”
Bunt was 25 when she first felt the pea-sized lump in her right breast and went to a surgical oncologist. Her mother had had cystic breasts and as a result, “there was always this fear of breast cancer,” she said.
But that doctor told her “you’re too young to have breast cancer,” she remembered. She had been trying to breastfeed her infant daughter, Alyssa, at the time. Alyssa had been born premature, and the doctor suggested that the lump was just a clogged milk duct.
Bunt couldn’t shake her worry. She had started losing weight — so much so that soon she weighed less than she had before she had gotten pregnant.
A few months later, the lump had spread into what felt like a gravel road, with “small pebbles” extending from under her breast and toward the center of her chest. Bunt said she remembered walking into her stepmother’s office, stripping off her shirt and lying down on the carpet to show the bumps she felt under her skin.
“Find me someone who will take me seriously,” Bunt remembered demanding. “Something’s wrong.”
Bunt went back to the hospital to another doctor, who ordered a sonogram, then a mammogram, then a biopsy. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2011, about five months after she had first found her lump. It was Stage 2.
Bunt quickly began an aggressive treatment plan, starting with a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation.
“It was a bombardment,” stepmother Abbe Bunt said.