Four months ago, Alex Hall gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. During a time when the bond between mother and baby should be the centre of a mother’s world, Alex’s was turned upside. Three weeks after giving birth, she was diagnosed with Stage 2, Triple Negative Breast Cancer.
“I noticed a little lump which I thought was a blocked milk duct, you know, due to breastfeeding. I kept my eye on it and when I was at the GP for something unrelated, I brought it up.”
“She wasn’t worried because I was 34, I was young. But we agreed to get an ultrasound to be safe… three weeks later I was starting chemotherapy,” Alex shares truthfully with me, one spring afternoon over zoom. She’s sitting on the floor in the spare room, with a scarf wrapped around her head.
“I’m the first one in my family to be diagnosed. A lot of people think there’s just one ‘type’ of breast cancer, but they’re wrong. There’s a few under the umbrella and the one that I have… I wasn’t aware of it. I didn’t know it was the most aggressive and the least researched,” she says.
Little is known about Triple Negative Breast Cancer but what is known is that it is more common in premenopausal women than post-menopausal. Meaning, young women every day are being diagnosed with breast cancer – a cancer that is wrongly believed to only affect those who are in the 50s.
Alex’s story is unfortunately one that is becoming more and more common amongst young women. More women in their 30s, and even their early 20s, are presenting to their doctors with lumps of concern in their breasts. Alex is one of the lucky ones. Her GP listened to her. Most aren’t given such quick attention, with many GPs brushing it off as ‘they’re too young’.
“You’re never too young,” Alex says strongly.
Despite being in the middle of chemotherapy, with her treatment schedule to soon shift to start the harsher drugs, she’s optimistic and remains pragmatic about the future.
Alex chose to take some control back by shaving her head on her own terms and, like many women in her place, has been given the tools to think about fertility. She has chosen to be placed in a medical menopause, with the hopes to preserve future fertility.
As for her breasts, she is in talks with her surgeons about her options and is waiting for her BRCA1 test results. These test results will reveal if she is in possession of the genetic mutation that can put you at a higher risk of developing the disease.
“I’m absolutely grateful to have found the lump when I did, even if it meant not being able to continue breastfeeding with my child. If I wasn’t breastfeeding, I’d have probably missed it.
“It was very emotional for me, to stop breastfeeding. It was hard. That special bond… I was worried about losing that bond between mother and baby as it’s the last time the baby and I are one.”
She agrees that breast-fed is still the best for her bub at the end of the day but she’s still grieving, and will continue to grieve, for a life that is free of cancer and for the early stages of her daughter’s life that were consumed by this disease.
“There are a lot of days where you’re just in survival mode. It wasn’t until the chemo started that I felt I could breathe a bit and process what was going on.
“But now, I just feel shattered from the drugs. I’m sitting on the couch, tired as anything, and I can’t pick my daughter up…” she pauses, and her head falls into her hands.
Alex’s tears are raw and honest.
“It’s hard to look in the mirror every morning, you know? I can’t do anything like I used to. I don’t look how I used to. I used to be fit and active, I love to mountain bike and that was my way of coping. I can’t do those things anymore to relieve stress and that’s frustrating. So incredibly frustrating.”
Unfortunately, breast cancer has been served to young women as an ‘older women’s’ disease and that you only need to pay attention to it when you’re scheduled for mammograms.
For reference, in Australia, mammograms begin when you’re 50. If there’s family history, there’s a chance you’ll be seen earlier, but it’s not common.
The most spiked defence against breast cancer of any kind for those under 50 is regular breast checks. However, in the case of the growing and rather aggressive Triple Negative Breast Cancer, monthly checks could potentially be too long and scheduling a breast check gets lumped into the pile with making dentist appointments and skin checks.
The lack of education and awareness really grinds Alex’s gears.
“I asked myself why we are not doing them [breast checks] and I thought… women our age are already inundated with things they should and should not do with their bodies.”
She’s right. For women, your late 20s and early 30s, are a busy time. You’re busy building a career, a family, relationships – all while proving your worth and sense of belonging. Health tends to be put on the back burner, when it should be taking a front seat.
“We all carry emotional labour and have to-do lists miles long, and some of us spend a lot of time thinking about outcomes and the future in lieu of being in the present. Turns out I’m not surprised breast checks fall by the wayside,” she says.
So how do we combat it, I ask her. How do we get young women to pay attention to their bodies, to listen?
For Alex, it’s about sharing her story and removing breast checks from the ‘to-do’ items and instead, place them under the self-care banner.
“I want to empower women to put more energy into knowing their bodies and looking for answers than we do into overthinking a social exchange and trying to please others.
“We can habitually create the time-out to check-in with our bodies and gauge how they are feeling both metaphorically and physically. This can encompass all parts of the body and wellbeing; get that mole checked, get answers for why your periods have become irregular or painful, investigate why lethargy is now your middle name.”
“Carrying the knowledge of what is our personal normal could not only lead women to catching any sneaky changes early, but it also gives us the unwavering confidence to address problems fully with our health professionals.”
“This shouldn’t be about pressure and ‘having’ to do something, but rather we could re-frame it as treating ourselves with the kindness and respect and love that we all deserve.”