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'Trust your gut': Younger women with breast cancer urged to advocate for themselves

Jo Panuwat D

A few months ago, Megan Mack discovered a lump in her breast. 

Mack is 36, and with breast cancer most often diagnosed in women 50 and older, she said her doctor initially told her not to worry about it. 

“I trusted her, and I thought if you say it's benign, it's benign,” said Mack, who is the producer for the talk show "Connections" on WXXI News.

Mack's doctor didn't seem overly concerned, but said she could go for imaging if she wanted to. Mack decided to follow her instincts and have that done

"In the back of my mind, something was like you have to go, you have to do this for yourself,” Mack said.

After two mammograms and an ultrasound, Mack was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Before this, Mack never had a mammogram, and she’s not alone. Health insurance typically doesn’t cover yearly screenings for breast cancer for women under 40, and it can be hard for some younger women to advocate for themselves and demand imaging.

Dr. Avice O’Connell, the head of breast imaging and radiology for the University of Rochester Medical Center, said only about 5% of women diagnosed with breast cancer are younger than age 40. She said most breast lumps in younger women are not going to be cancerous, but young women need to be vocal if they think there’s a problem.

“I think if somebody goes to their doctor and says, 'This is new, this is different, and I demand an ultrasound,' " O'Connell said. "Women have to be their own advocates.” 

Alexis Corbitt, one of the leaders of Young Survival Coalition, an advocacy group for women under 40 who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, said not every doctor is as proactive as O'Connell.

"I do know of several women whose physicians did not worry about it," Corbitt said.

She said patients shouldn't be intimidated by their doctors and need to know they can challenge them.

"If you don't understand something, ask,” Corbitt said. “You only have one body, and you have to protect yourself, and someone’s laziness can cost you your life or quality of life."

URMC oncologist Dr. Carla Falkson said a key part of her treatment is paying attention to her patients.

“Listen to your patients, because they know their bodies, they know what they need,” Falkson said.

She said some patients do challenge her recommendations, but she respects their concerns, and has no problem recommending a second opinion.

“If the patient says this doesn't feel right, then I'll look further to try to figure it out,” Falkson said. “If I don't know, and I sometimes don't know, I usually send them to other specialists to have them checked out as well.”

Falkson said getting the patient involved in the decision making is the best way to treat them.

As for Mack, she said it’s much easier to make informed decisions about her treatment now that she has been advocating for herself, and she encourages other women to find that confidence within.

“You know your body better than anybody. And so trust yourself, trust your gut,” Mack said.

Racquel Stephen is a health and environment reporter. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Rochester and a master's degree in broadcasting and digital journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.