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More young women fighting breast cancer

Already a breast cancer survivor before her 30th birthday, Lauren Wakefield knows she's one of the lucky ones.

"I found a lump one day and went in probably within the next two weeks after that," the 27-year-old wedding photographer said. "From the time that I went in to when I was diagnosed was only a couple of weeks, and it was already Stage 2. It was pretty fast moving."

Like many of her peers, the West Town resident thought breast cancer was something that only affected older women.

"My mom had breast cancer so I thought maybe I'd get it later on in life," she said. "I never thought I'd get it in my 20s. What a shock to say the least."

"Younger girls don't think it's going to happen to them and it's becoming more prevalent," added fellow breast cancer survivor Ashley Shaffner, a 26-year-old Lake Bluff resident who discovered a lump during a self-exam when she was 24 that turned out to be Stage 1 breast cancer. "I was really fortunate because I caught it early."

According to the American Medical Association, an increasing number of younger women haven't been as fortunate.

The Association recently released a study showing that cases of advanced breast cancer have nearly doubled among American women ages 25 to 39 over the past 40 years, from 1.5 cases per 100,000 in 1976 to 2.9 per 100,000 in 2009.

"In women under the age of 40, breast cancer is a more aggressive disease," said Dr. Dennis Citrin, a board certified medical oncologist with Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Zion who specializes in advanced forms of breast cancer. "For younger women, there's no question, breast cancer is a serious illness."

Citrin cautioned that, while statistically significant, the numbers aren't necessarily cause for alarm just yet.

"It's a small increase in that most women who are diagnosed with breast cancer do not have Stage 4 disease," Citrin said. "There are only about 4 percent of women who have a Stage 4 disease."

Regular mammograms aren't necessarily the best way to preventing that number from increasing.

"Mammograms are not the answer because in younger women, mammograms are much less sensitive," Citrin said. "The mammogram can be negative and fail to show the cancer in a significant number of cases. With modern mammograms, that false negative rate is lower but it's still about 10 percent even with digital mammograms. That means that you cannot rely on a mammogram to say ‘No, the cancer is not present.' The test you'd actually do is an ultrasound which will distinguish between solid and fluid."

Instead, Citrin advocates knowing your family history and being in tune with your body.

"We usually recommend women should examine their breasts about halfway between their periods," he said "Women should be familiar with how their breasts feel so if there is a change whatsoever, they're going to pick up on it as early as possible and have it checked out by a physician."

That last part is key, according to survivors.

"If you're in tune with your body and you're paying attention, I think you have a lot better chance of surviving," said Kim Jewett, a 36-year-old Plainfield resident and two-time breast cancer survivor. "It's just people being empowered."

"I try and express to people as much as possible that you have to be your own advocate," Wakefield added. "If you think something's wrong and you don't like what the doctor's telling you, you have to investigate it."

All survivors we spoke with say they're planning on participating in the Susan G. Komen Mother's Day Race for the Cure on May 12th in Grant Park to help raise awareness. Shaffner said breast cancer is an issue women need to start thinking and talking about at an earlier age.

"I think it's a mentality, especially in my generation, that cancer is only going to affect elderly people," she said. "Cancer doesn't discriminate. That's my comeback to everybody lately. I've seen it affect a lot of young people very close to me."

More information on this year's Race for the Cure can be found here.

Matt Lindner is a RedEye special contributor.

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Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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