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What's it like to get breast cancer in your 20s?

  • Lauren Wakefield, 27, left and Ashley Shaffner, 26, both have already battled breast cancer.
Lauren Wakefield, 27, left and Ashley Shaffner, 26, both have already battled… (Handout )
March 13, 2013|By Matt Lindner @mattlindner | For RedEye

So what's it like to learn you have breast cancer in your 20s?

"Terrifying is the first word that comes to mind," said 26-year-old Ashley Shaffner of Lake Bluff. "Denial, disbelief that this isn't really happening and then just a feeling of being overwhelmed."

"At our age, it can be like your life is over," said survivor Lauren Wakefield of West Town, who was 26 when she was diagnosed. "You're supposed to be in this prime."

Wakefield, a 27-year-old wedding photographer, remembers finding out the lump she had just had removed from her breast was cancerous during a follow-up appointment at her doctor's office.

But rather than start crying as some might in that situation, she did something else.

"I had had the lump removed and I went in so they could check my stitches, and they told me and I just started laughing," she said. "I remember when I found out, they told me up until then that it was nothing. It wasn't even on my radar that it could be anything."

For her, the news came in two distinct waves.

"When they tell you you have cancer and when they tell you that you have to have chemo," she said. "It's when you have to have chemo that it really changes your life because you can no longer hide it. That, that sucks."

Fellow survivor Shaffner remembers thinking the same thing once the fear subsided.

"This sounds so vain but you're a single 24-year-old girl thinking ‘My hair is going to fall out, I'm never going to find someone, I'm never going to get married,' " she said.

Both are currently cancer-free and said their experience has caused them to be more vigilant about their personal health than they were pre-diagnosis.

"I probably check myself every two weeks now," Shaffner said. "I'm a little compulsive about it now. I'm also going in every three months for follow up digital mammograms as well."

"I get checked so often that self-checks, while I do them, aren't as important," Wakefield added. "If I think something's wrong, I'll go in."

Shaffner said her personal experience has made her more vocal about breast cancer prevention so others don't have to go through what she did.

"I would never want to get the phone call from one of my girlfriends that this had happened to them," she said. "I don't think my friends are being as proactive as I'd like them to be, but all you can do is just keep telling them. I was really shy about it at first. The more I can share with them, the more they can hopefully learn."

Matt Lindner is a RedEye special contributor.

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