Younger Breast Cancer Patients Share the Importance of Support Networks and Engaged Caregivers
Billings, MT - “Because I had just turned 40, I wanted to be a good patient and scheduled an initial screening mammogram at St. Vincent Yellowstone Breast Center. To be honest, I was more worried about COVID-19 than I was about breast cancer,” said Becky Owens, 41, of Billings.
After the mammogram identified a few suspicious spots, Owens was scheduled for a biopsy, which determined that she had breast cancer. “When they both came back positive, everything happened pretty quickly,” she said.
For women who are diagnosed with breast cancer in their early 40s, it can be challenging to deal with the diagnosis when not seeing many women their age sharing the same experience. “At our age, we sometimes have the privilege of not having to worry about our health,” said Owens. “For younger patients, it changes your life in ways you never expect and you don’t see a lot of peers going through it.”
Owens relied on her care team to navigate her new normal as she evaluated treatment options and next steps. From the initial screenings to her ongoing treatments, she has been impressed with a team that is caring and supportive, but also takes the time to communicate clearly about what is happening.
“Breast cancer diagnoses for women in their 40s are rising,” said Dr. Kalie Adler, a radiologist and women’s imaging specialist at St. Vincent Healthcare. “When sharing a cancer diagnosis with our patients, we hope to have an open, honest conversation and also help prepare them for what is next. Especially for women who are diagnosed after an initial screening mammogram it can come as a shock.”
“It was really scary. It happens so fast and you are going through so much,” said Owens. “(The care team) was just the right amount of comforting and professional to give me confidence going into my treatments.”
As St. Vincent Healthcare’s breast cancer patient navigator, Ella Dugan-Laemmle, plays an important role for patients to help them understand the next steps. She is generally the first person to contact patients after they have received a breast cancer diagnosis. For her, it is important to get them all of the information they need as soon as possible so they can start understanding their treatment options.
“I know how long it can take to get all of the additional imaging and testing done and I don’t want to have them wait longer than they have to,” Dugan-Laemmle shared. “Whether it is genetic testing, or MRI or biopsy results, I want to make sure all of those appointments are scheduled and they have all of the information so they can start moving forward.”
After laying out a care plan with her team, Owens elected for a double mastectomy without reconstruction and is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatments. She stressed the importance of having a team of caregivers that you can trust. After her experience, she recommends that all women find a primary care provider and develop trusting relationships with open communication. She shared that “you don’t want to have to go finding (a provider) when you really need one.”
For Jennifer Adams, 40, her breast cancer diagnosis was unique due to a number of factors and previous health concerns. “It is a tribute to Dr. Adler, that even though my case was difficult to diagnose and I didn’t have many of the traditional symptoms, she said ‘let’s keep after it’ to figure out what was going on.” Adams is currently in active treatment after undergoing a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy treatments and beginning radiation therapy.
As a mother, she has found strength and support in being open with her children. To help her heal after treatments, they created a recovery room in their house, a comfortable space for her to spend time with her children. “It’s not just me going through this. It’s my whole family,” she said. “We created a space so they could sit and be with me.” Her 4-year-old dresses up as a doctor to help ‘check-up’ on her and her son reads her jokes. “All of the kids have found a way to connect,” she said. “We believe it is important to let them be part of the process.”
Adams has also been touched by how the community has reached out and supported her and her family. “All of these women have reached out to me after they found out about my diagnosis. It is a sisterhood,” she said.
“For our entire team, throughout our patients' treatment, are looking for barriers to care,” said Dugan-Laemmle. This may come in the form of financial support for travel, lodging and food, or additional items such as bra prosthetics or camisoles to provide comfort after surgery. We want to provide a personal or human touch,” she said. “For many of our patients, those are things they remember after their treatment is over.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Owens also shared the importance of being open to the kindness and support of others to help through treatment and recovery. “You are going to need support. No matter how independent you are, it is a lot to go through,” she said. “Don’t wait to ask for help. You will be surprised because help doesn't always come from the places that you would expect.”
Owens and Adams both shared that, even after initial treatments, the physical and emotional healing process continues. “Now I am in the phase of coming to terms with what has happened, emotionally being able to process what life looks like now for me and my family,” said Owens.
“When you are in your 40s the last thing you think is going to happen is to be diagnosed and treated for cancer,” said Dr. Patrick Cobb, oncologist at St. Vincent Healthcare. “It is why we have a whole team to support these women through treatment, including our patient navigators and case workers. We understand and respect that each patient's needs are different from financial to mental health needs.”
“A lot of people are not prepared for treatment. That is when the hard work takes place,” said Adams. “I’ve been through enough to know that you finally see the damage after the storm has passed, when you have time to process and grieve.”
If you or a woman you care about need more information about getting screened for breast cancer, please visit: http://svh.org/mammography.
SCL Health is a faith-based, nonprofit healthcare organization dedicated to improving the health of the people and communities we serve. Founded by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in 1864, our health network provides comprehensive, coordinated care through eight hospitals, more than 180 physician clinics, home health, hospice, mental health, and safety-net services in Colorado and the Montana Wyoming region.