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Young breast cancer patients face unique challenges

Date published: 7/22/2007


Breast cancer diagnoses overwhelm men and women of all ages.

But oncologist Ann Partridge, who directs the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Program for Young Women With Breast Cancer in Boston, said young breast cancer patients suffer more psychosocial distress from breast cancer diagnoses than older patients do.

"Multiple studies have shown this over and over again," she said.

Partridge said researchers do not know exactly why that is. But she said younger women may be more concerned about functioning at home and at work, their physical appearance, sexual functioning and fertility. Breast cancer treatments may affect all those areas.

Partridge also speculated that younger women may be less emotionally resilient than older women.

"They haven't been through as much in life," she said. "They haven't built up the bad-things-happen-no-matter-how-good-you-are stamina."

Erica Hutchinson and Janna Coppage, two Culpeper women diagnosed with breast cancer in their 20s, agree that having breast cancer at a young age presents unique challenges.

"Never in a million years did I think it could happen to me, at least in my 20s," Hutchinson said.

Coppage said that she struggled to take care of her young children during chemotherapy. Her kids are now 7 and 5.

"It's a lot different to be chasing around a 4-year-old than it would be to chase around a teenager," she said.

For Hutchinson, explaining her cancer proved especially difficult. Her son was 14 months old when she was diagnosed.

"I don't care how little they are, they still know that mommy's concerned or something is wrong," she said.

Coppage said she thinks her cancer has sparked more emotional responses from those around her than cancer in an older woman might have.

"They've taken it more personally," she said. "I think a lot of people have looked at me and thought: That could be my daughter."

Coppage also said that, while she was not planning to have more children, she can understand how the risk of treatment-related infertility would concern other young women.

But having breast cancer in your 20s has its benefits, Hutchinson said. She said that taking care of a young family while undergoing treatment kept her focused and determined.

"You see right in front of you what you're fighting for," she said. "You don't think as much, 'I'm having a rough day,' when you're busy doing puzzles and playing games."

Both Coppage and Hutchinson said they found strength in overcoming their obstacles.

"I never thought I would fight through something this tough," Coppage said.

"Cancer is tough, but we're tougher," Hutchinson said.

Rebecca Blatt: 540/374-5000
Email: rblatt@freelancestar.com