Today in the chart

I’m a Nurse and I Was Diagnosed with Breast Cancer at 36

Breast cancer is the most common cancer for women under forty. Younger women are more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage with more aggressive cancer subtypes.

October is the month of pink ribbon bombardment. I was all in on the pink ribbon before my diagnosis of breast cancer at thirty-six - aggressive, stage three, invasive ductal carcinoma. It never occurred to me that the companies splashing pink across their products for the entirety of October were profiting off the pain and suffering of those who have lived with and survived this awful disease. They capitalize on the notoriety of the pink ribbon without ever giving back to the community it is supposed to support. 

Let’s rewind eighteen months ago. I was a busy mom of five, working full-time in the pediatric cardiovascular ICU at a large teaching hospital in metropolitan Los Angeles. One morning, while getting dressed, I just happened to brush my hand over a lump I had never noticed before. It felt like it had appeared overnight. I did monthly exams and saw my OB just one year earlier. I was too young for cancer, right? I knew my family history; we did not carry the “breast cancer gene.” How was it possible that I - a nurse, an advocate, a young mom - had a lump in my breast? Surely, it wasn’t cancer. 

I saw my OB with the solid belief that this was nothing to worry about. I was young, too young for breast cancer. Active and healthy - I never smoked, took no medications, regularly saw a physician, and breastfed all my kids. Not “high risk” for breast cancer. Too young for mammograms. Luckily, my OB had a nurse practitioner who saw me right away. She agreed it was probably nothing, but regardless, she wanted me to go immediately for a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound the very next day. 

I would find out later she had been diagnosed in her early forties with breast cancer. She was, in fact, worried. At this point, I was starting to worry, too. Hours later, my worst fears would be confirmed. At thirty-six years old, I had stage three breast cancer.

The chaotic whirlwind that ensued was a blur of scans, appointments, biopsies, waiting, feeling overwhelmed, and constant panic. 

How was this possible?

What was I going to tell my kids?

How much would my treatment cost?

Was I going to die before I reached my 40th birthday?

My treatment plan was extensive. A clinical trial for a novel chemotherapy added six months to the standard treatment course, which was over eight months on its own. I got very little support from my unit management. Still, many nursing friends and physician colleagues rallied around me, sending meals and gift cards to my family, checking in, and providing emotional support. 

I’m proud to say I made it through eight rounds of experimental chemotherapy, six more rounds of standard chemo, a 10-hour mastectomy and reconstruction surgery, and 25 daily radiation treatments. Now, eighteen months after my initial diagnosis, I’m cancer-free, back to work, and on the road to putting my life back together. 

So why do I hate Breast Cancer Awareness Month? Too often, companies slap a pink ribbon on any number of random products - fried chicken, drain cleaner, bug spray - without donating a penny to breast cancer research or patients. Are they capitalizing on the widespread notoriety of the pink ribbon to sell products? Yes. Do any of those profits go to improving the lives of patients living with breast cancer or its long-lasting effects? In many cases, the answer is no. 

Breast cancer is the most common cancer for women under forty. Younger women are more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage with more aggressive cancer subtypes. Stage IV or metastatic disease - the only kind of breast cancer people die from - receives merely an estimated 2-5% of total breast cancer research funds. 

The overuse of the pink ribbon to sell products without benefitting the breast cancer community is called “pinkwashing.” As a breast cancer survivor, October feels like reliving my cancer experience nonstop. Breast cancer is real and on the rise in young women. It’s time companies stopped exploiting pink for profits. We need to prioritize funding for stage IV patients and increase funding for novel targeted therapies like the clinical trial I was part of. We need to dig deeper into why young women like me are being diagnosed at higher and higher rates. 

This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, instead of buying something with a pink ribbon, consider donating directly to an organization that is making a difference in the world of breast cancer medicine or that provides funds directly to patients living with the disease to help lighten the burdens they face - financial, emotional, physical. We’ve survived the worst kind of news you can receive. 

I tell my story to make others more aware of their bodies, risks, and choices. It’s time to move past awareness into advocacy and action. It’s time to prioritize patients and survivors over pink and profits. 

Alex Prabhu is a pediatric cardiovascular ICU nurse and healthcare writer. She is a fire wife, mom of five, and teaches yoga in her ample spare time. 

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