Diagnosed with breast cancer at age 28, this survivor said more young women are seeking support.
Amanda Perdue was hiking in the mountains of Montana when she started feeling tired.
“When we would get done hiking, I would tell my husband, ‘We need to go back. I think I need a nap,’” Perdue said. “And that’s not like me. Looking back, that was a huge red flag.”
The couple was traveling across the country, hiking up volcanoes in New Mexico and exploring Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. They had been trying to get pregnant and decided it was time to take a step back.
Months later, Perdue was watching her husband’s softball game when she tapped the top of her chest. She found a large lump, but as a 28-year-old, she said she didn’t think much of it.
She went to the gynecologist, and “they didn’t think it was anything,” Perdue said. She then had a biopsy done, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013.
The Caesar Rodney High School teacher immediately went into planning mode.
“I just wanted to plan,” Perdue said. “I think you go into overdrive when you get diagnosed, and it’s just: ‘Get it out of me.”
She quickly did that, putting her plan into action. With help from her uncle, a doctor, Perdue met her oncologist and team at the University of Pennsylvania where she would receive her treatment.
Young and diagnosed
The median age for women diagnosed with breast cancer is 62 and fewer than 11% of all diagnosed are younger than 45, according to SEER Cancer Statistics Review 1975-2016.
Perdue said she noticed this disparity as soon as she started chemo.
“When I did my treatments at the University of Pennsylvania, I was the youngest in the waiting room. So, it was sort of awkward going in there,” she said.
While younger women are less likely to find they have breast cancer, those who are diagnosed face a distinct set of challenges.
Younger women often have new relationships or might be single, it’s likely they haven’t paid for a house yet, and they are often in the early stages of their career.
These women also face higher mortality rates, possible ramifications from early menopause and fertility issues, according to Young Survival Coalition, an international support organization for young survivors and their caregivers.
Research shows that these challenges are especially magnified for African American young women.
One of the biggest questions young survivors ask is about fertility, Perdue said.
Doctors often advise young women to preserve their fertility by freezing their eggs before chemotherapy, but Perdue said her case was different.
“They did tell me that, from my prior history [with infertility] and now with the chemo, ‘You wouldn’t be able to get pregnant,” she said.
Flashing forward to the end of the summer of 2014, Perdue had finished her treatment, including a 13-hour surgery for a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation.
In the fall of 2015, she feared a recurrence.
“After my radiation, I was feeling super tired again like that time in Montana. So, I was thinking the worst,” she said.
When the doctors ran her blood work, she received the unexpected news: She was three to four months pregnant.
In February 2016, she gave birth to a baby girl named Penn, named after the University of Pennsylvania.
After finding out that she could have children, Perdue went to the doctor to look into birth control.
That’s when they told her she was pregnant with baby number two.
“It’s so crazy, I just remember that day calling my husband and he was cracking up on the phone,” she said.
Her son Crew is now 2½ and Penn is 3½ years old.
Normally doctors advise survivors to wait a few years after radiation to try getting pregnant, but Perdue said everything went smoothly.
“It’s really an odd story in the breast cancer field. Even my doctors have told me this is truly not a normal outcome,” she said.
Picking up the pieces
After her treatment, Perdue volunteered and participated in programs with the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition, a statewide organization that provides support services for survivors and helps raise awareness.
Because of increasing awareness and communication among the younger generation, more young survivors were coming in, Perdue said.
Seeing this trend, DBCC revamped their Young Survivors in Action support group for young women diagnosed with breast cancer in March.
Perdue came on as the manager, where she said young women can connect and talk about everything from nutrition to fertility to self-care.
“We forget that after you get through your treatment, there’s a lot that changes afterwards, and I don’t think you realize that until after you ring the bell at radiation,” she said.
She called this “picking up the pieces” after treatment. Many women feel like they are reinventing themselves, she said.
While the group is mostly women in their twenties to early fifties, any breast cancer survivor or patient is welcome.
The group gets together for activities up and down the state, from Pilates to a party celebrating the release of a pink beer at Fordham & Dominion in Dover coming up Friday, Oct. 11.
From diagnosis to survivorship
Before she was diagnosed, Perdue was a physical education and driver’s education teacher at Caesar Rodney High School. But her doctors told her that she couldn’t continue teaching after treatment.
“That was probably the most crushing aspect of the whole diagnosis for me,” she said. “I loved what I was doing.”
The group provides a space where women can talk about navigating these kind of topics.
DBCC also provides financial aid for young women who may face challenges in the workforce.
Women are connected with the coalition almost immediately after being diagnosed through good relationships with hospitals.
They can go over their diagnosis and ask questions. Young Survivors in Action then pairs them with a peer mentor who has had a similar cancer.
Every breast cancer patient is different, and everyone has the right to react to their diagnosis in the way they want, Perdue said.
“It’s OK to have a space where you cry or you get angry. However anyone feels is absolutely perfectly normal,” she said.