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Brandi Weddle

Brandi Weddle (Ron Jensen / S&S)

A little more than a year ago, Brandi Weddle found a pea-sized lump in her right breast.

Had she known the statistical probability of a 25-year-old woman having breast cancer, she might have shrugged off the discovery.

“I felt like I had age on my side, that it was probably nothing,” she said. “But I had a gut feeling.”

Statistically, she had little reason to be concerned.

“There’s a lot of 25-year-olds out there with breast lumps,” said Dr. (Maj.) Sarah Ducharme, a general surgeon at the RAF Lakenheath hospital in England.

Nearly all of those lumps, however, are benign. The American Cancer Society says the chance of a woman between the ages of 20 and 29 having breast cancer in any given year is about 1 in 22,000, or 0.0044 percent.

Breast cancer is all too common in older, mostly post-menopausal, women. A woman between the ages of 50 and 59 has a 1-in-37 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer. The chances increase to 1 in 26 for women between the ages of 60 and 69.

But young women, even those between the ages of 30 and 39, have only a 1-in-229 chance. And the chance of a woman between the ages 20 and 29, like Weddle, having breast cancer is 1 in 2,212.

But Weddle wore dread and worry like a cloak.

Her husband, Staff Sgt. Justin Weddle of the 420th Logistics Readiness Squadron at RAF Fairford, England, tried to calm his wife, telling her 25-year-old women don’t get breast cancer.

Weddle first noticed the lump in January 2004 and had an ultrasound in March; by then the lump had grown to the size of a gumball, she said.

A bit of the lump was removed for the biopsy at Lakenheath, and before she completed the three-hour trip home to Fairford, the doctor had called with the result.

“I could tell by the tone of his voice,” Weddle said. “He said, ‘I have some bad news.’ I answered for him. I said, ‘I have cancer, don’t I?’

“I felt like I got a death sentence.”

Weddle looked for information about breast cancer, something in which to find solace. But, “none of the information caters to women who are pre-menopausal, of child-bearing age or college age,” she said.

The issues of pregnancy and fertility and dating all come to the mind of a young woman with cancer, said Debbie Haber, communications director for the Young Survival Coalition, which formed in 1998 to raise awareness of young breast cancer victims.

“A woman who is in her 60s probably doesn’t have these issues,” Haber said in a telephone interview from New York City.

Breast cancer can damage a young career, she said. How much should a woman tell her boss? When should she tell co-workers?

“It’s not to say that women in their 40s, 50s and 60s don’t have the same issues,” she said. But they are issues that impact mostly young women.

Also, she said, cancer in a younger woman is often more aggressive.

“They’re finding that and they’re not exactly sure why,” Haber said.

Getting treated

After hearing the bad news, Weddle and her husband returned to the hospital, bringing along their two children, Kaitlyn, now 3, and Emily, 2. Weddle said she didn’t want to be apart from them despite the late night trip.

A lumpectomy was scheduled right away, and another was performed nine days later so doctors could be sure they got all the cancerous material.

While the surgeries were considered a success, Weddle was subjected to several months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. In all, she was blasted with radiation 33 times and underwent chemo six times.

The treatments left her sick, vomiting and weak.

Justin Weddle had his hands full. He, too, was suffering.

“When she found out, my heart fell out,” he said. “I knew I had to be someone strong for her, a shoulder to cry on. At the same time, I felt I needed a shoulder to cry on.”

The worst moment, he said, was when his wife got very sick from the treatments in the middle of the night. The British hospital was a 40-minute drive away. The girls were half asleep in the back seat while his wife vomited in the front seat and he sat idling at a traffic light on dark and deserted streets.

“As a husband, you feel there’s something you should do,” he said. “But your hands are tied.”

The treatments ended last fall. In early 2005, Brandi Weddle was given a clean bill of health.

She’s now an advocate for more research about cancer in young women. She supports House Resolution 1245, also known as Johanna’s Law, which would create a national campaign to educate women and health care providers about gynecological cancers.

She always did monthly breast exams, but now she is an adamant supporter of the simple procedure that probably saved her life.

“Like I tell a lot of my friends, ‘It’s your life in your hands,’” she said.

Earlier this spring, Brandi Weddle competed in a 5-kilometer Race for Life, which raised money for cancer research. Her husband was there when she crossed the finish line and burst into tears.

“To her,” he said, “that was a symbol that maybe she had finally reached the finish line.”

Quick facts about breast cancer ...

¶ Nearly 211,240 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2005.

¶ Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in women, accounting for one out of every three cancer diagnoses.

¶ Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women ages 20 to 59.

¶ An estimated 40,410 women will die of breast cancer in 2005, one death every 13 minutes.

¶ The incidence of breast cancer is lower among African American women than white women, but African Americans have a higher mortality rate.

¶ The American Cancer Society recommends a clinical breast examination every three years for women between the ages of 20 and 39, and every year for women over the age of 40.More information can be found at the Web site for the American Cancer Society at www.cancer.org and the Young Survival Coalition Web site at www.youngsurvival.org.

Odds of breast cancer increase with age

The following information from the National Cancer Institute indicates the likelihood of a woman in various age groups being diagnosed with breast cancer:

¶ Ages 20 to 29: 1 in 2,212

¶ Ages 30 to 39: 1 in 229

¶ Ages 40 to 49: 1 in 68

¶ Ages 50 to 59: 1 in 37

¶ Ages 60 to 69: 1 in 26

Source: The American Cancer Society


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