Young breast cancer survivors in Sonoma County find support as 'Breasties'
A breast cancer diagnosis, at any age, extracts an emotional and physical toll that is impossible to label or quantify. But young women under 45 often face added challenges in coming to grips with the disease. Among the toughest are issues of future fertility, child rearing under duress, experiencing early menopause because of medications and suffering heightened concern about body image and intimacy during peak reproductive years.
Young breast cancer survivors also suffer from a higher prevalence of psychosocial issues, according to an article in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
“An important difference in how younger breast cancer impacts younger women is that younger women often have no peers who have had cancer, so they feel more isolated,” said Dr. Amy Shaw of St. Joseph Health's Cancer Survivorship Program in Santa Rosa. “I think it is safe to say that most women who are diagnosed after age 50 know at least one person who has had breast cancer.”
Breast cancer is still relatively rare among young women. According to American Cancer Society's Facts & Figures 2017-2018, fewer than 5% of all breast cancers diagnosed in the U.S. occur in women under 40. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11% of new breast cancer cases in the U.S. occur in women age 44 or younger.
In addition, breast cancers in younger women are more likely to be aggressive and require chemotherapy, which can damage the ovaries. Both chemotherapy and tamoxifen, a maintenance drug to prevent breast cancer coming back, can trigger menopause earlier than normal, which limits the window of time to have children.
Stacey Halvorsen of Petaluma, who was diagnosed in 2018 with breast cancer when she was 36 and had a 2-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, was able to draw upon a strong, support system of family and friends during treatment. However, she needed to find someone to talk to who had walked in her shoes.
Through a mutual friend, she was put in touch with Stephanie Frick of Santa Rosa, who was diagnosed in 2014 with breast cancer at age 29 when her son was 3 years old. The two strangers sat down on the couch together and had a good cry.
“She was so amazing to me in my journey and became such a good friend,” said Halvorsen, who went on to co-found the Northern Calfornia chapter of The Breasties, a national nonprofit dedicated to supporting young women affected by breast cancer through community and friendship.
“I want other people to have that … to talk about losing hair, eyebrows, fingernails, our boobs, and if we get to keep our nipples or not. How are my kids going to react, and what are they going to remember from this whole experience?”
As an ambassador for the NorCal Breasties, Halvorsen helps connect women through monthly meet-ups from San Francisco to Sacramento. Last weekend, seven women from the support group met at a Healdsburg winery, then attended an inspiring, one-woman show at the Raven, “Chemo Barbie: My Lady's Bits' Journey Through Breast Cancer,” starring and written by young breast cancer survivor Heather Keller of Los Angeles.
The actress crafted the heartbreaking and comedic story about her journey from healthy, vegan runner to cancer patient by drawing upon sources such as her YouTube journal, “Keep Abreast with Heather. ” The “Chemo Barbie” show debuted at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2017 and went on to tour internationally.
“It is my story, but it's not just about cancer,” Keller said. “It speaks to the general public to spread your wings … go out and live life, however you can .”
In the middle of chemotherapy, Halvorsen discovered The Breasties on Instagram and signed up to participate in one of their wellness retreats.
At the same time, Cassie Bush of Sacramento also signed up, and the pair now serve as ambassadors of the NorCal chapter.
“Everything that we do is positive and healing - it's not this big, depressing sob story,' Halvorsen said of the support group. “You have to maintain your sense of humor. If you can't enjoy your life today, and you're so bitter and upset about what happened, why did you fight so hard to live and survive?”
For Keller and Halvorsen, sharing their personal stories with frank vulnerability and gritty humor allows them to feel good about helping others.
“If I can share this, maybe others will find some hope and strength,” Halvorsen said. “Maybe they'll find a way to push through … and be able to be a mom for their own journey.”
“Cancer is that big word that everyone is terrified of,” Keller said. “But I'm trying to dispel the terror that it gives you … with good science, we can treat it better and better.”