At 38, graduate student and mother Stefanie Gerard faced an unexpected diagnosis of— part of an alarming rise in breast cancer cases among women under 50.
A recent study published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open found an almost 8% increase in diagnosed cases over the 10 years leading up to 2019. In the U.S., breast cancer ranks as the second most common cancer among women and is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths for American women.
Dr. Celine Gounder, a CBS News medical contributor and editor-at-large for public health at KFF Health News, said that while traditionally, age was the primary determinant for, the medical field is now leaning more toward risk factors. These include family history and genetics.
"People need to be sharing family history with each other," Gounder said.
Gerard, who did have a family history of breast cancer and a genetic mutation, elevating her risk, told her doctors about a persistent pain in her left armpit and breast. While she underwent annual sonograms and even a breast MRI, all tests came back negative.
"They always said, 'You don't need the mammogram until 40, no mammogram, you're fine, you're fine,'" Gerard said. Adding to the confusion, she was told, "cancer doesn't hurt."
However, in May, after consulting with a new doctor, Gerard had athat detected low-stage breast cancer. Radiologists informed her that her type of cancer showed microcalcifications only visible on mammograms. The revelation led to the realization that she did need a mammogram all along.
Post-surgery tissue testing revealed Gerard's cancer to be stage 2 ductal carcinoma, an invasive form. The disease had spread to her lymph nodes, and she needed chemotherapy, radiation treatments and a double mastectomy.
"When I found out that I was going to have a mastectomy, I wanted to remember my body the way it was," she said.
Gerard took to Instagram and hired a photographer to capture her pre-operation body.
"It's still my body. It's just got some battle wounds," she said.
Now, as a survivor with a powerful message, Gerard advocates the importance of early screenings.
"You have to make screening earlier. What if I had waited?" she said.
"If there is something in the back of your mind telling you, 'This is not right,' then you have to push for it any way that you can get that test," said Gerard.
Gerard is scheduled for her third round of chemotherapy next week. Her medical team plans to rescan her in the coming months to evaluate the effectiveness of treatment.
She remains optimistic.
"Every moment I look at my daughter, it's like I'm trying to hold onto every moment and I just want to know I'm going to be OK, I'm going to be here and I'm going to watch her grow up," she said.
There are potential drawbacks to early screenings. Younger women tend to have denser breasts, which can result in more biopsies. These biopsies, while essential for diagnosis, come with risks, including scarring.
"You don't want all these 20-30-something-year-old women ending up with unnecessary biopsies," Gounder said.
Gounder said that while many associate breast pain with cancer, it's more frequently linked to hormonal changes. The primary indicators of breast cancer to be aware of include masses in the breast, skin changes or rashes, dimpling, and bloody nipple discharge.
For patients feeling unheard by their doctors, Gounder said patients should bring a trusted individual to appointments for advocacy and, if necessary, seek a second opinion.
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