Young breast cancer survivors share hope and stories | National conference draws hundreds to Bellevue event
March 4, 2013 · Updated 6:37 AM
Victoria St. Martin saw a lot of things in her future: a burgeoning career as a journalist, even a possible engagement to her then boyfriend. But at 30 she never anticipated being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Then one day, during a self-exam, she came across a lump on her left breast. A visit to her doctor didn’t immediately raise any flags, but St. Martin kept pressing. She was young, she knew, but something didn’t seem right.
“At 30 you’re just coming into your own,” remembers St. Martin of the diagnosis and the chemotherapy that followed. “Then you lose your breasts, you lose your hair…How do you think of yourself? What happens when you don’t have those? Are you still a woman?”
St. Martin and hundreds of others like her gathered Friday through Sunday of last week in downtown Bellevue at the annual Conference for Young Women Affected by Breast Cancer (C4YW), the convention’s first West Coast conference. Now in its 13th year, C4YW targets women under the age of 45 because of the relative medical anomaly of diagnosis at such a young age, and the often trying lifestyle changes that follow.
Many young women report feeling isolated and alone, says Elyse Spatz Caplan director of programs and partnerships at Living Beyond Breast Cancer, which hosts C4YW in partnership with the Young Survival Coalition.
“When I was diagnosed, I couldn’t connect with my friends who weren’t going through this process,” remembers St. Martin. “My friends were talking about weddings and having babies, growing their hair out long. I didn’t know if I’d ever have a wedding, or a baby. And I wasn’t going to have long hair.”
But neither could St. Martin identify with the older women in her support group, many of whom had grandchildren or long-standing careers. Martin was suddenly making decisions about her own health and future, she’d never foreseen. She froze her eggs, determined to one day have a child when off medication, scheduled reconstructive surgery, and began to patch together her new existence: as a cancer survivor.
C4YW brings together leading researchers, health advocates, supporters and those recently diagnosed for a weekend of talks, forums and workshops. Topics range from the latest emerging technology to belly dancing classes and information sessions on sexuality after chemotherapy.
The average breast cancer patient is post-menopausal, diagnosed between the ages of 62 and 63. But Caplan has seen the rates of young women accelerate in recent years. National statistics approximate that there are 13,000 new cases of women under 40, annually.
C4YW’s mission is to strike a balance between life and treatment, while allowing women to network with others their age. When LBBC was founded in 1991, remembers Caplan, herself a survivor, most information about breast cancer centered on prevention and mammogram testing. Little focus was placed on the criticality of social support.
Caplan remembers her own life after chemotherapy, a young mom with three sons, desperate to make sense of the trauma she had just been through: “I said, ‘I really need someone that gets it’” said Caplan. “I wanted to meet one other young woman like me…It can make all the difference in terms of, in the morning getting up and putting one foot in front of the other.”
But while the women of last weekend’s C4YW wore colorful wigs, toted breast cancer awareness gear and boldly shared their survival stories, there were also somber undertones. Women diagnosed with breast cancer at a younger age are at a higher risk of death; familiar faces don’t always return.
“It’s nice to have a balance,” says St. Martin. “You need that in daily life. You need to go to your support group or see your oncologist, then have lunch with the girls. I can’t be a cancer patient all the time.”
Which is exactly the goal of C4YW. Over the course of the weekend, more than 600 men and women attended the conference at Bellevue’s Hyatt hotel, many flying in from across the country.
“It’s inspiring. So much about life after cancer is being scared that it will come back,” says St. Martin. “Here, you meet other women…It gives you hope, seeing all these people.”