22-Year-Old Woman Discovers Breast Cancer Lump After Dropping Necklace Down Her Shirt
About 70,000 women and men under the age of 40 are diagnosed with breast cancer every year.
This article originally appeared on People.com.
When Leslie Almiron discovered a lump in her breast in 2016, it was by accident. The pendant on her necklace had fallen off and landed in her bra. When the then 22-year-old reached in to retrieve it, she felt her hand brush up against something. At first, she didn’t think much of it and hopped in the shower. But while she was showering, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. So she felt around again, and this time, she couldn’t deny that there a lump.
Almiron immediately called her mom and asked her what to do. Her mother wasn’t too concerned — after all, Almiron was only 22 — but she suggested she call her doctor to make sure. The doctor wasn’t very worried either, considering her age and history, but advised her to come in.
That initial doctor’s visit led to an ultrasound and then a recommendation to make an appointment with a breast surgeon. But even then, the idea that it could be cancer didn’t weight too heavily on Almiron’s mind. Her doctor didn’t even mention the word, she says.
“Now that I think about it, it did take a long time,” Almiron, now 24, tells PEOPLE of the ultrasound. “But I was just completely unaware of what was going on. I was just laying on the table, perfectly fine.”
The thought that the lump could be cancerous didn’t occur to Almiron until she was getting it biopsied, and she saw the physician assistant’s face go white as she took a closer look. But they couldn’t tell her if it was cancer until her official test results came back the following week.
“I spent the whole weekend borderline freaking out, and then thinking there was just no way that this could happen,” she says.
The following week, she got the call: It was cancer — stage 3 — and they needed her to come in as soon as possible for more tests. Almiron went on to undergo chemotherapy, radiation and a double mastectomy.
Almiron’s diagnosis at such a young age may be rare, but it’s far from unheard of. Though typically associated with older women, about 70,000 women and men under the age of 40 are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, according to the Young Survival Coalition. And every year, the disease kills 1,000 women in the same age group — a lower survival rate compared to those over 40. Young women generally face more aggressive cancers and lower survival rates, and evidence suggests that breast cancer before age 40 differs biologically from the cancer faced by older women.
With these cases comes unique challenges. Jennifer Merschdorf, the CEO of the Young Survival Coalition (who herself was diagnosed with breast cancer at 36, the same year her mother was diagnosed at 66), says the organization’s goal is to help young women navigate these obstacles.
“Young women are starting or in the full swing of their careers,” Merschdorf tells PEOPLE. “They’re starting families. That’s very different than older women.”
The decision to get a mastectomy at such a young age is all the more difficult, and many women go into early menopause, according to Merschdorf.
For many women, the question of fertility and children is “huge” when they get a breast cancer diagnosis, Merschdorf says. Particularly if a woman hasn’t had children or isn’t even sure if she wants them in the future.
Almiron says she hadn’t given much thought to whether she wanted children prior to her diagnosis. So when her doctor suggested freezing her eggs, she was overwhelmed.
“I’m just freaking out,” she says. “I’m thinking ‘I have cancer, I’m not going to live to have children. Why do you want me to do this?’ “
Almiron had been with her boyfriend for four years, but they had just graduated college and were looking for their first jobs and hadn’t seriously spoken about children.
“I had to call him and say, ‘Hey, I have to freeze my eggs. Do you think you’re going to love me forever? Should we do embryos?’ ” she recalls. “That’s just a conversation I don’t need to be having at 22.”
At her doctor’s encouragement, Almiron ended up going forward with the egg preservation, and within days, she was getting hormone injections. She was able to freeze 26 eggs before she started her treatment.
There may be about 70,000 new cases every year, but finding fellow young people living with breast cancer is tough. Especially for those who live outside of an urban area. And though support groups for breast cancer patients exist all over the country, if they’re filled with older woman, it often can make a young patient feel isolated.
Once, when Almiron was checking into to a support group, the leader told her to wait outside for her mom, assuming she was the daughter of a patient, not a patient herself.
“She eventually stopped going after she says she realized “this just isn’t going to make me feel better.”
Comfort can be found in organizations that are geared towards those living with cancer who are in their age group. The Young Survival Coalition hosts an annual conference called the National Summit for survivors to come and meet one another. And Almiron met fellow young cancer survivors through a group called Stupid Cancer, where she made immediate connections with survivors her own age.
“We clicked right away, and it’s a friendship that you’d think we would have been friends for years,” she says of one of the friends she made through Stupid Cancer. “It’s like, ‘I know exactly what you’ve been through.’ “
And for young women, financial and logistical problems that come with a cancer diagnosis can be even more pronounced. As Merschdorf says: “It’s not like in your twenties you’ve saved this huge nest egg that you can use to offset these huge medical expenses.”
For Almiron, who is a DACA recipient, the ability to pay her medical bills presented its own problems. Before getting her first job a year before her diagnosis, she didn’t have health insurance. And because she had no way to get insurance without a job, she had to continue working while she was going through treatment. The only time she took off was when she was recovering from her double mastectomy, and was, in her words “flat broke.”
“I couldn’t afford to get kicked off my insurance,” she says. “It was like, ‘Tough luck, you have to deal with it.’ And that was my attitude. I have to go to work bald, sweating and in pain. It sucks.”
She credits DACA for saving her life: “If I had been diagnosed two years before when I didn’t have insurance, I don’t know what I would have done.”
When asked what she would want a young woman who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer to know, Almiron says, “It gets better.”
“The finish line will move, and it’s going to change, and it’s not going to be over when you think it’s over, or when you want it to be over, but there is an end,” Almiron says. “It’s coming. Just hang in there.”