The lump in Alex Whitaker’s breast appeared out of nowhere.
It wasn’t there when she was getting dressed on New Year’s Eve. Two weeks later, it was strangely palpable.
“It’s crazy, ’cause I had my annual exam in October and there was nothing,” Whitaker said on a recent morning while getting her second round of chemotherapy at Florida Hospital Cancer Institute Altamonte.
Whitaker is 24. Her diagnosis puts her in a small group of young women who get breast cancer each year.
“It’s like doctors all say the same thing: you’re the youngest person I’ve ever seen,” Whitaker said. “Like when I went and got my ultrasound, the radiologist came out and she was like, ‘I just wanted to meet you in person, cause you’re the youngest person I’ve ever seen and I couldn’t believe it.’ ”
Of the more than 250,000 women who get breast cancer each year, about 12,000 are under age 40, according to the Young Survival Coalition. Still, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women ages 15 to 39, said Carol DeSantis, director of breast and gynecological cancer surveillance at the American Cancer Society.
“I don’t think this should be something that worries young women, but it’s important to think of our health and any type of change in your body should be brought to your doctor’s attention,” DeSantis said.
Whitaker has been diagnosed with stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma and is still waiting for the results of her genetic tests. Her tumor shrunk by 70 percent after the first round of chemotherapy.
She’s chosen to have a double mastectomy — to eliminate any chance of the cancer returning– followed by reconstruction surgery.
“I could do lumpectomy and radiation, but all my doctors said some patients end up coming back,” she said.
Cancer diagnosis in Whitaker’s age group comes with a set of unique challenges, because they’re at the verge of launching their personal and professional lives.
There’s no effective screening tool for this population — regular mammograms aren’t recommended until women are at least 40 years old — and like Whitaker, the majority find their breast abnormality themselves, according to the Young Survival Coalition.
Whitaker’s diagnosis wasn’t confirmed until after a mammogram, ultrasound, MRI and finally a biopsy. The mammogram didn’t show anything at all.
The situation isn’t unique to her.
In addition, breast tissue in younger women tends to be dense, so even if they have a mammogram, the lumps don’t show up in the image.
“So if you’re not routinely screened, at least have a clinical breast exam at your annual well-woman exam,” Minton said.
But Whitaker did have that exam and nothing was there.
“It’s crazy, because it can happen to you,” she said. “Don’t dismiss what you feel. You know yourself and you’re your best advocate, so if you feel something’s off, go get it checked out, just for your own mental sanity.”
Another issue is conserving fertility and “whether it’s safe to proceed to conceive afterward is a big issue,” Minton said.
Some women choose to harvest and freeze their eggs. Whitaker decided to get a hormone injection that tricks her body into thinking she’s in menopause and protects her reproductive system.
And from social and psychological aspects, young breast cancer survivors don’t have strong support groups as do children and older adults.
“There’s definitely a gap in support groups for my age,” Whitaker said. “Especially for breast cancer. A lot of people that I’ve found are going through something similar.”
Quickly after getting over the shock of her diagnosis, Whitaker, who’s a public relations professional, decided to share her story on social media. Her friends have created a hashtag for her: #whittystittycommittee.
“You can have a pity party or do something about it,” Whitaker said. “Your voice is powerful so I would rather use it than just sit around and feel sorry for myself.”
She’s been able to make a few friends on Instagram, where she’s been sharing her transformation and the loss of her long blond hair.
“This is God just using her,” said Whitaker’s mother, Carmen Felix, who was sitting close to her in the chemotherapy room. “It’s not something we ever wanted, but He knows her strength.”
Whitaker’s fiance, Tim Cheadle, proposed to her two days after her biopsy results came back. He got her the emerald-cut diamond she wanted.
“I wasn’t planning to propose,” Cheadle said. But then came the shocking diagnosis, and he changed his mind. “I was scared of losing her.”
The couple is planning to marry in February 2020.