By Sierra Rains-Moad
Chelsee Lewis Wilson was in a meeting with her coworkers at the OU K20 Research Center when her phone rang — she was expecting a call, but it was a full day early.
Wilson left the meeting with a sense of urgency and called back. Her doctor picked up.
“‘We got your results back and you have breast cancer,’” Wilson remembers her doctor saying.
Wilson was in shock and envisioned the diagnosis as a death sentence.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to die at 29’,” Wilson said.
Wilson is one of around 250,000 women who have been unexpectedly diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age. Every October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an international health campaign organized by major breast cancer charities reminds individuals of the disease that affects 1 in 8 U.S. women.
Yet, many young women remain unaware they can be at risk for developing breast cancer as early as their 20s, OU Breast Health Network radiologist Elizabeth Jett said.
Most women do not get screened for breast cancer until they are in their 40s, Jett said, and in most cases young women have been advised to wait. However, the number of women contracting breast cancer in their late 20s and early 30s is increasing for unknown reasons, she said.
Physicians generally consider genetic risk factors and family history when looking for the cause of the disease, but an increasing amount of young women who are developing the condition in the U.S. have no family history of breast cancer, Jett said.
Jett said breast cancer can be particularly harmful to younger women because it not only derails many of their professional and life plans, but it is often more aggressive.
If breast cancer is not caught quickly in younger women it can be deadly because the cancer spreads throughout the individual’s lungs, brain and organs, Jett said.
“We go through our 20s and we kind of think we’re invincible and we’re going to live forever,” Jett said. “When all of the sudden you’re faced with the reality that that’s not necessarily true.”
Before she was diagnosed, Wilson said she didn’t even go to the doctor for a cold. Wilson was living a “pretty normal life,” working with schools across the state to help build interactive learning communities and, in October 2017, celebrating her first anniversary with her husband.
It was a coincidence that Wilson’s annual appointment with her physician was coming up in March 2018 when she first felt a lump in her breast while in the shower.
“I thought ‘OK, well I’ll just address it, it’s probably just a cyst,’” Wilson said.
Wilson said her doctor initially thought the lump was a cyst as well, but after conducting a mammogram and an ultrasound, her radiologist said she was concerned.
“The big problem we see so often in young women is they didn’t think they could have cancer — their health care provider says ‘Oh this is just a lump, a bump in your breast tissue,’” Jett said. “They tend to get blown off a little bit because people don’t think about breast cancer in women in their 20s.”
A biopsy was done and Wilson was sent home expecting to receive a phone call with the results in 48 hours.
Kristen Sublett, Wilson’s coworker at the K2O Research Center, was in a meeting with Wilson when the call came. Sublett and Wilson’s other coworkers had been witnesses to Wilson’s medical appointments for weeks.
No one would have ever expected Wilson would be diagnosed with breast cancer, Sublett said, but when Wilson left the meeting to take the call, her coworkers knew right away.
“She’s very, very young and healthy,” Sublett said. “It was just complete shock.”
After her coworkers learned of her diagnosis, Wilson’s husband was the next to know. Calling her husband and telling him “you need to leave work” is a part of that day Wilson said will forever be ingrained in her mind.
For many young women, the diagnosis of breast cancer can spell the end of a relationship, Jett said.
“For some people it derails their plans professionally, for other people it destroys relationships,” Jett said. “There’s a lot of women whose husbands have divorced them after they were diagnosed with cancer.”
It wasn’t easy, but Wilson said her husband was always there for support. “‘This is a crappy first year of marriage, so let’s just get through it,’” Wilson recalls her husband saying.
Wilson’s particular form of breast cancer, invasive ductal carcinoma, is one of the most common, but like many other young women, she is triple positive, meaning her breast cancer grows very aggressively and feeds off hormones like estrogen and progesterone.
Because her cancer was so advanced, Wilson said she had no option but to go right into chemo. This meant many long hours at her physician’s office every three weeks throughout summer 2018.
First would come the saline, then the anti-nausea meds, then the heartburn meds and then the Benadryl.
Wilson broke down in the waiting room before getting her first MRI. Only her coworkers and her husband knew of her diagnosis at this point because Wilson was holding off telling her family and friends.
“Telling someone that you have cancer really sucks,” Wilson said.
However, her doctor was able to calm her down and remind her that breast cancer is highly treatable. Wilson then gradually became more comfortable with sharing her story and began to notice how there were a lot of other 20-year-old women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Out of her newfound courage grew a strong support system of family, friends and colleagues.
“No one has given me a chance to feel sorry for myself and I think that’s part of what’s helped,” Wilson said. “No one goes ‘Oh, you have cancer’ and gives me sad eyes. They just treat me like normal.”
Sublett said she was impressed by the way Wilson carried herself at work following her diagnosis.
“She hasn’t let it keep her down,” Sublett said. “She’s done everything that she’s been able to do and she’s had a great attitude about it.”
In the seven months Wilson has been enduring treatment, she has managed to keep traveling across the state to help schools with professional development. Even when she can’t make it into the office, she works from home, Sublett said.
Wilson was the first person Sublett has known to be diagnosed with breast cancer and as a young woman in her 30s, Sublett said she has become more conscious of her own health as a result.
“It did make me stop and think about ‘Is this something I’m paying attention to, is this something that I’m asking my doctor?’” Sublett said.
Wilson went through six rounds of chemo from May to October before her doctors found that the cancer appeared to be gone. But they wouldn’t know for sure unless the affected breast was removed.
Wilson had the option of keeping one of her breasts, but opted for a double mastectomy because the chances of the cancer returning were at 20 percent, which was not worth the risk to Wilson.
“I would take 20 percent odds if I was playing the lottery — a one in five chance is great,” Wilson said. “But a one in five chance for the breast cancer to come back and that I would have to fight this battle again is way too high for me.”
The idea of having both of her breasts removed and returning home the same day was a hard thought to grapple with, Wilson said, but on Oct. 18, Wilson had the procedure done.
It took more than half a year to get to this point and put a heavy strain on her personal life, but Wilson said she is excited for her battle to finally be over and has obtained a different outlook on life as a result of her experience.
“It sucks, but I would rather fight it now and get it over with than 30 years down the road,” Wilson said. “This is a low point so life just gets better from here and it kind of makes life more enjoyable, which is a very strange thing. I’m just a lot more grateful and it takes a lot to come to that realization, but we get there.”