Support group created for young breast cancer survivors

Consuelo Rabanales of Springettsbury Township, left, and Tara Garver of Dover talk during a support group for women younger than 45 who have been diagnosed with breast cancer in October at the York Jewish Community Center in York Township. (Photo by Kate Penn)

Consuelo Rabanales of Springettsbury Township, left, and Tara Garver of Dover talk during a support group for women younger than 45 who have been diagnosed with breast cancer in October at the York Jewish Community Center in York Township. (Photos by Kate Penn)

Sue Bowman struggled to find support when she was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly 20 years ago.

Bowman, then 43, was a nurse and the mother of two teenage boys. Her marriage was rocky. She lived in Michigan, where she said there weren’t any support groups or patient-education classes.

“There was nothing,” she said. “It was really up to you to create your own support.”

Bowman said she felt scared throughout her battle. Although she was a nurse, she didn’t know a lot about the disease. Talking to other women her age helped her deal with her cancer most.

Today, Bowman — a nurse navigator for the York Cancer Center — is cancer-free. Through her own bout with breast cancer and her experience in the field, she has seen a void in support for young breast cancer patients.

In July, she announced the creation of a support group for women who were diagnosed when they were 45 or younger. The group held its first semimonthly meeting Oct. 10 at the York Jewish Community Center in York Township.

Filling a void

A support group for women who were diagnosed with breast cancer at age 45 or younger met for the first time in October at the York Jewish Community Center in York Township.

A support group for women who were diagnosed with breast cancer at age 45 or younger met for the first time in October at the York Jewish Community Center.

Bowman said younger women who have breast cancer need different support than older women who also have the disease. Women who are 45 and younger tend to be in different stages of life than women who are in their 50s and older. For many young patients, breast cancer is just the tip of the iceberg. They might have to deal with raising a family, working and juggling finances on top of undergoing treatment.

“It’s just very, very different worlds,” she said.

Also, Bowman said, younger women tend to develop genetically driven, more aggressive types of breast cancer. She said younger women are more likely to be diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer — cancer that has spread — because they aren’t routinely screened for mammograms and because the cancer might be harder to detect in a breast with functioning tissue.

According to Susan G. Komen’s website, women lose breast tissue after menopause, and their breast density decreases, which makes it easier to read mammograms of postmenopausal women than those of premenopausal women. Before starting the group, she searched York Hospital system’s oncology registry and learned that more than 260 local young women were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer from 2005 to 2013. Since January, she said, 12 young women — including a 23-year-old — were diagnosed.

As of early October, Bowman said, about 10 women had registered for York Young Survival Coalition Face 2 Face Networking. She and the other organizers — Stacy Riggs, Amy Milsten and Jia Conway — planned to allow participants to shape the structure of the group. Topics might include dating and sex, body image, employment issues, fertility and child bearing, genetics, recurrence, nutrition and exercise, and talking about cancer with children.

Working through treatment

Co-organizer Sue Bowman of Spring Garden Township says younger women who have breast cancer face different challenges than older women who have the disease. She knows firsthand. Nearly 20 years ago, she was diagnosed when she was 43 years old.

Sue Bowman talks to women at the first York Young Survival Coalition Face 2 Face Networking event.

Riggs, 36, of Abbottstown was first diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2012. She had chemotherapy, two lumpectomies and 33 rounds of radiation therapy. She worked as a nurse throughout most of her treatment. Shortly after her diagnosis, she had gotten a divorce. By December, she was cancer-free.

But in August, after feeling a lump in her breast and going for testing, she learned her cancer had returned. She said she was OK with it and decided to get a mastectomy.

However, after more testing, she learned it had spread to her lungs and multiple lymph nodes. She now had stage 4 cancer, which would require treatment for the rest of her life. She said that news brought her to her knees.
“It’s not curable,” Riggs said, adding that she doesn’t know how much time she has.

When she was diagnosed the first time, she said, she attended a support group that was mostly older women. After attending a conference of 600 young survivors in February in Seattle, she realized that her needs as a younger woman with breast cancer were much different than those who were older.

Riggs said her greatest challenge has been working throughout treatment.

Bowman said there’s no other support group for young breast cancer survivors in the area and that Face 2 Face has the ability to connect women who share similar circumstances and struggles.

“So many people feel isolated,” she said.

Breast cancer in young women

An estimated 250,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer at age 40 or younger live in the U.S. today. More than 13,000 young women will be diagnosed this year. Compared with older women, young women generally face more aggressive cancers and lower survival rates. Evidence has shown that breast cancer before age 40 differs biologically from the cancer faced by older women.

— Young Survival Coalition

Risk by age

Based on current incidence rates, 12.4 percent of women born in the United States will develop breast cancer. Risk of developing breast cancer varies during each stage of life. Here’s a breakdown of risk by 10-year intervals.

    30s: 1 in 227 women
    40s: 1 in 68 women
    50s: 1 in 42 women
    60s: 1 in 28 women
    70s: 1 in 26 women

— National Cancer Institute

If you go

What: York Young Survival Coalition Face 2 Face Networking, a support group open to any woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 45 or younger
When: 6:30 to 8 p.m. Nov. 6; then every other Wednesday
Where: York Jewish Community Center, 2000 Hollywood Drive, York Township
Details: Contact Sue Bowman at 717-741-8455 or sbowman2@wellspan.org, or visit the group’s website

Leigh Zaleski

I'm a health features reporter for the York Daily Record/Sunday News and healthy living blogger for No Sweat, York. Contact me with story ideas at lzaleski@ydr.com, 717-771-2101 or @leighzaleski on Twitter.

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