Diagnosed With Breast Cancer at 21: A Survivor's Story

Last summer, at the age of 21, Colleen Cappon was diagnosed with breast cancer.

This summer, the now 22-year-old Watertown, N.Y. college student will be celebrating her victory over it.

Cappon’s story was first reported by FOXNews.com this past October during Breast Cancer Awareness month.

Now cancer-free, Cappon, a former intern at the FOX News Channel, said she “feels great” and only wants what any other college senior wants: a job.

“When I was told [the cancer] was gone, it was very surreal,” said Cappon, who is finishing up her studies at the State University of New York in Cortland, N.Y. "It was like everything was in slow motion. I love college. But I’m ready to move on. I really liked doing an internship at FOX and I’m hoping to find a job in television news.”

Breast Cancer in young people is rare, said Dr. Cynara Coomer, a breast surgeon with the Surgical Associates of New York in Manhattan.

“Only 2 1/2 percent of patients are under the age of 35,” she said. “And when you get into the 20 to 24 age range, only about 1.4 per 100,000 patients will be in that range.”

Though it’s rare, breast cancer in young women tends to be more aggressive than in older women, said Coomer and Dr. Ann Partridge, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a clinician at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute specializing in young women with breast cancer.

“It tends to be more advanced in younger women than in older women,” Partridge said. “This is due to several reasons, including a lack of awareness and a lack of screening. The lack of awareness is because young women don’t expect to get breast cancer. And there’s no good way to screen young women. And because so few young women get it, screening young women is kind of like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

The lack of awareness and screening leads to a delayed diagnosis, which means that breast tumors are likely larger and more likely to have spread by the time doctors find them, Partridge said.

Cappon was diagnosed with Stage IIB breast cancer.

She had a tumor that measured 2.5 centimeters and had spread into her mammary lymph nodes. Her tumor also was fast growing and had tripled in size within nine days from diagnosis.

Because of this, Cappon and her doctors took an aggressive approach to treatment.

“Everything I did, I did to the extreme,” Cappon said.

Cappon chose to have both of her breasts removed, along with the surrounding tissue. She also underwent chemotherapy, which meant losing her hair.

But she never lost hope.

“I’m a strong person and I could kind of see something like this happening to me in the future,” she said. “I had thought of it before because it runs in my family but nothing can prepare you for when it does happen.”

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Although many studies have shown that in most cases double mastectomies are not necessary, Coomer and Partridge, neither of whom has treated Cappon, said doctors often suggest such a measure in young women, especially those with a family history — Cappon's mother had it twice.

“You’re going to see this kind of approach more commonly in this age group than with people in their 30s and 40s,” Coomer said. “You’ll also see [a more aggressive approach] in women who have a family history of breast cancer or a genetic risk.”

Cappon has been cancer-free for more than four months. She will take Tamoxifen to block the hormone estrogen, which can promote the development of breast cancer, for the next five years as a follow-up to her breast cancer treatment.

“I’m really excited that it’s over with and that I can sleep well at night now,” she said.

The prognosis for women in Cappon’s age group is dependent on many factors, including the stage in which the disease was caught, the therapy that’s used to fight the cancer and a person’s overall biological risk for reoccurrence.

The five-year survival rate for Stage IIB breast cancer is 81 percent. Although survival rates aren't routinely calculated past five years, Partridge said rates, on average, are about the same 10 and 20 years out.

“The later the breast cancer is caught, the higher risk for reoccurrence,” said Partridge. “The good news is that we’re getting better and better in our treatment of breast cancer and the majority of women will survive.”

Partridge and Coomer said Cappon will face unique circumstances going forward.

“For young women it’s a whole different ballgame,” Coomer said. “They basically have their whole lives ahead of them and are facing much different circumstances than women in their 50s and 60s, and even women in their 40s. Women in their 20s are more likely to be single. They’re not yet settled in their careers. Many of them will want to get married and have families.”

The doctors suggested that Cappon seek out a support group either in her community or online of women her age that have survived breast cancer.

Cappon said she has already met a number of other young women who have experienced breast cancer.

“I spoke at Cortland’s Relay for life and other women started e-mailing me,” she said. “I met a 26-year-old and a 29-year-old with it. I was shocked to see how many young people like me had it.”

Coomer also said Cappon should follow a healthy diet rich in antioxidants, and limit alcohol and soy consumption — high soy consumption is thought to increase estrogen levels in the body. High estrogen levels are believed to be one cause of breast cancer.

“I don’t think anyone can prevent breast cancer solely on diet,” she said. “But we don’t want patients to be overweight, which can be a contributing factor. Other than that, she will have to be followed very closely over the next five years and have annual screenings after that.

Moving forward Cappon’s positive attitude also will go a long way in her fight against breast cancer.

“We’re all going to die some day, but most of us don’t have it in our faces at 20,” Partridge said. “What I tell my patients, is that going forward you have to assume you’re going to do well and, statistically speaking, the vast majority will do well.”

Cappon, who has spoken about her cancer at various events, said she hopes to continue to raise awareness.

“I don’t want to be consumed by it,” she said. “It’s not who I am, it’s something I had. I want to let people know about the dangers of breast cancer when you’re young and raise awareness for young women. But I don’t want to make it my life’s work.”