Missi Haman calls it “the battle of too young.”
That's what everyone said when they found out she had cancer, that she was having a double mastectomy, that she was losing her hair.
“You're too young,” they would whisper. “You're too young.”
Haman, now 30, was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 22.
Age is the strongest risk factor for breast cancer: 95 percent of new cases occur in women 40 and older, according to the American Cancer Society. Though it is rare, young women are not immune from the disease.
Fewer than 2 percent of women with breast cancer are younger than 35 when diagnosed, according to the National Cancer Institute. Dr. Elizabeth Reed, Haman's oncologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, has been treating breast cancer patients since 1998 — not even a dozen of those women have been in their 20s, she said.
Haman first felt the lump when she was 19. Her gynecologist told her it was nothing. Haman suspected it turned into something three years later as she felt it grow. She scheduled an appointment. The doctor told Haman that, at her age, she had better odds of being struck by lightning than getting breast cancer.
The call came while she was in class at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“They didn't tell me over the phone,” she said, the eight-year-old memory still fresh in her mind. “What they said was, 'Is there a loved one you can bring to our office?' ”
“I broke down in the hallway.”
She didn't later that afternoon, though, when the doctor told Haman and her father that she had invasive ductal carcinoma. She couldn't — because she looked at her dad, standing beside her, and he was the one falling apart.
It was Oct. 10, 2005 — Breast Cancer Awareness Month. When she went grocery shopping, she noticed pink ribbons decorating soup can labels. When she turned on the television, football players wearing pink cleats lit up the screen.
“I love the awareness,” Haman said, “but it was really hard then. You just want to forget the moment you're in.”
Her cell phone bill that month skyrocketed: $600 to talk to doctors, friends and family about her new reality.
She went through 16 rounds of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor, then radiation. She lost her hair in chunks on her pillow. Her eyebrows and eyelashes fell away. She had her breasts surgically removed, and then CT scans and MRIs looked normal.
Her cancer returned when she was 25. A second round of radiation removed it.
She receives hormone therapy, now, to keep it from returning a third time. It gives her hot flashes — the product of artificially induced menopause. The sensation makes her feel older. Her experience makes her feel older, too. A little wiser, even.
She uses words such as “resilient” and “cherish.” She says the sky can fall, but happiness is a choice; that cancer can't control your life.
“I have goals to accomplish. I have things to do. I have places to go and people to meet,” Haman said.
She's taking classes at UNO so she can pursue a career in public speaking and one day write a book to share her experience with other breast cancer patients — as a survivor, not a victim.
“(Cancer) teaches you how precious life really is. I never let myself wait for a second chance. I experience life to the fullest,” Haman said.
The American Cancer Society recommends that women between ages 20 and 40 should perform monthly breast self-examinations to look for the development of a lump or swelling, skin irritation or dimpling, nipple pain or retraction (turning inward), redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin, or a discharge other than breast milk. They should report any changes to their doctor.
Women who do self-exams should have their technique reviewed by a health professional during their physical exam.
They also should receive a clinical breast exam at least once every three years, according to the American Cancer Society.
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