Personal Stories, Research
By: Susan G. Komen
Ann H. Partridge, MD, MPH Founder and Director, Program for Young Women with Breast Cancer Director, Adult Survivorship Program and Lance Armstrong Foundation Clinic Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School
“Young breast cancer patients have sort of a double-whammy: they have worse disease on average, and because of their unique psychosocial issues, including concerns about fertility, they also tend to experience more distress.”
“We know from research and clinical experience that younger women have a harder time with a breast cancer diagnosis than older women. Parenting and work responsibilities aren’t easily shifted to someone else.”
What first motivated me to focus both my scientific research and my clinical practice on breast cancer in younger women was just seeing the enormous gap in what we know and what we can do for younger women compared to women who are diagnosed in their 50s or 60s, which is where most breast cancer cases tend to occur. As a relatively young investigator myself, seeing the needs that were not being met for women my age and younger made a deep impression on me. I knew this was a niche that I could fill and feel passionate about—one that could potentially make a big impact on women’s lives.
When young women are diagnosed with breast cancer they suffer not only the usual challenges of the disease, they also face challenges that are unique to, or accentuated by, the very fact that they are so young. For women in their 40s and younger, those challenges often include genetic issues and how this affects treatment decisions as well as fertility concerns because so many haven’t yet completed their families. Some of the younger women haven’t even started dating yet, or found the person that ultimately they’ll settle down with, if that’s in their future.
When a young woman comes to see me, she’s often like a deer in the headlights—especially when there’s no history of breast cancer in her family. Though she may have many friends, she may not have a support network to help her cope with the realities of cancer diagnosis and treatment. Who’s going to help a young college student get to and from chemo appointments while her parents are half-way across the country? By contrast, breast cancer patients in their 50s and 60s are usually established in life and have partners and supportive friends and family who’ve been a part of their lives across many milestones.
Fertility is also a big concern. Every day I hear someone say, “I can deal with the breast cancer, it’s the idea that I might not be able to have children that I can’t stand.” Our work is focused on helping these women cope with their diagnosis, and it’s also about studying options to preserve fertility or help women to make treatment and fertility decisions that make having a child a possibility in the future.
The challenges facing young women with breast cancer are being studied and addressed through research grants including one funded by an historic collaboration between The Conquer Cancer Foundation®, ASCO, and Susan G. Komen for the Cure®. Komen alone is providing $10 million in support of projects and programs designed to improve the quality of cancer care. It is such an honor and I’m so grateful that my work and the work of my colleagues at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is being supported by some of the most innovative new grants addressing real-life issues in cancer care today. That’s also a reason I am part of the Komen Scholars – so I can be on the frontlines of the scientific review process for such an important organization like Komen.
My dream has turned into a dynamic and comprehensive multidisciplinary program that truly addresses the unique needs of young women with breast cancer and improves how we treat women and their disease. It’s hard to imagine anything more exciting or hopeful.
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