Chapel Hill, N.C. — A breast cancer diagnosis is devastating to women of any age, but when it happens before the age of 40 – the age doctors normally begin screening women regularly – there are often special considerations.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s comprehensive cancer support program is just one way younger women cope with an early diagnosis and all the challenges that come with it.
For cancer survivor Katerina Gmitter, the program was essential in helping her overcome the circumstances of her illness. In 2009, at age 32, Gmitter found a lump on her breast during a self-exam.
“I first found the lump when I had just given birth to my daughter,” she said.
Gmitter’s doctors initially dismissed the lump, saying it was a milk duct issue despite the fact that Gmitter’s mother had died from breast cancer at 48.
Elizabeth Sherwood, a registered nurse who works with the cancer support program, said younger women are often misdiagnosed.
“It’s often times dismissed by providers,” she said.
Following a positive diagnosis, double mastectomy and chemotherapy, Gmitter reached out to the support program for help.
“The first thing I did was reach out to younger women who were diagnosed,” she said. “That helped me tremendously.”
Sherwood said young women have more complications because of breast cancer and often need more emotional and moral support.
“Young women are often times pre-motherhood and so you have issues with fertility, issues around the medications, the chemotherapy and post-treatment medications,” she said. “There are sexuality changes, there are body changes.”
Three years later, Gmitter says she couldn’t have made it through treatment without the help of the group.
“Although the cancer journey was a difficult one, I truly focus on the gifts the cancer has given me,” she said. “I am thankful for every day I have with my husband and my children, and that I’m healthy.”
UNC commemorated breast cancer awareness month Wednesday by lighting the iconic Old Well pink. A fun run and walk followed.