Breast Cancer in Young Women
- Miranda McKeon, 19, best known for her role in the television series Anne With an E, is sporting a newly shaved head just days before her final round of chemotherapy.
- McKeon says her hair isn’t “just hair” to her. But she says that she was “a bit surprised” by how beautiful she still feels without her hair.
- The number of women diagnosed between ages 20 and 29 with stage 1, 2 or 3 breast cancer increased by 2% from 2000 to 2015. “The increasing incidence of cancer diagnosed in young women is certainly multifactorial, with some contributing elements that we don’t fully understand,” medical oncologist Dr. Payal Shah previously told SurvivorNet.
“I did a thing!!!! Just a few days before my final chemo (Tuesday!), it was time to let go and finally shave my head,” she posted to Instagram on Sunday. “Since the moment I was diagnosed, the hair thing has been a major stressor — maybe even more than my overall health. It’s not ‘just hair’ and it doesn’t ‘just grow back’ (although it will) — over the past four months, I’ve realized how much hair is an extension of femininity. I never realized how much joy I got from feeling pretty day to day and how much I felt my hair defined me.”
Breast Cancer in Young Women
McKeon is young; too young for cancer. Women don’t typically begin to undergo regular mammograms until they turn 40, and McKeon is only 19 years old.
Dr. Ann Partridge, an oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, tells SurvivorNet that about 260,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the United States. And about 11,000 women aged 40 and younger are diagnosed with the disease annually — a small percentage of that 260,000. But in some ways, she says, a diagnosis for a younger woman can often be even more devastating because the cancer is likely to be a more aggressive form, and at an advanced stage. This is because screening for younger women isn’t standard.
“Young women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer that is more aggressive,” Partridge says. “Their disease is more likely to be of the subtypes of breast cancer, because breast cancer isn’t one disease — the ones that are more aggressive and tend to be what we call a greater stage. That is, they’re more likely to have bigger tumors and more likely to have lymph node involvement at diagnosis than older women.”
Increased Awareness is Possibly Leading to More Diagnoses
In 2019, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Iowa found that a growing number of young women are being diagnosed with breast cancer. And while that sounds alarming, experts tell SurvivorNet that early detection and increased awareness may be a significant part of the increase.
Many women are still diagnosed with breast cancer after the age of 50, but the number of women diagnosed between ages 20 and 29 with stage 1, 2 or 3 breast cancer increased by 2% from 2000 to 2015. For women in their 30s and 40s, rates of diagnosis rose by about 0.3% per year.
According to Dr. Payal Shah, there are a lot of different reasons why the study might have concluded that there’s been an increase in young women diagnosed with breast cancer.
“The increasing incidence of cancer diagnosed in young women is certainly multifactorial, with some contributing elements that we don’t fully understand,” she says.
She explains that one of those reasons might be the increased attention around the importance of breast cancer screenings, which could result in more young women catching their cancer earlier in life. However, she adds, “we also know that the medical and patient communities are becoming more aware of breast cancer risk, as well as genetic predispositions to breast cancer, so some part of what we are seeing may be reflective of this increased awareness.”
‘Not Just Hair’
McKeon says her hair isn’t “just hair” to her.
“I have been slowly losing my hair for the last three months and have spent a lot of time in the mirror picturing myself bald,” she wrote in her post. “As a result, this final step honestly wasn’t a big shock.”
But she says that she was “a bit surprised” by how beautiful she still feels without her hair. “I have realized that I am beautiful for my contributions in conversations, for my humor and my vulnerability, for the kind of friend I am and the way that I show up for those around me. My beauty is the least interesting thing about me.”
Vivian Ruszkiewicz, a nurse practitioner with OhioHealth, a not-for-profit system of hospitals and health care providers in Columbus, Ohio, tells SurvivorNet that hair loss is one of the more “distressing” side effects of chemotherapy.
“It’s one of the things that people can see from the outside that people may know that you are ill,” she says, “and that poses a lot of stress for patients.”
She says that some people who only experience partial hair loss still choose to wear a wig, like many people who lose their hair completely, before chemo so that they’re prepared, “so they can feel more like themselves during chemotherapy.”
Ruszkiewicz says that hair loss begins about three to four weeks after your first chemo treatment; you could start to see some hair regrowth about four to six weeks after your last treatment.
“My friends and family have been so incredibly supportive and have shown me to my core that the people in my life don’t love me for the way I look, they love me for the person I am,” McKeon says. “And I really really love that person. I think she is so beautiful. So while I certainly miss looking in the mirror and feeling beautiful in a conventional manner, I will continue to celebrate my beauty in a bigger, more meaningful way (and I have a really nicely shaped head).”