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Too Young for Breast Cancer?: Adrienne Harlow

January 29, 2013

Written By Robin Warshaw, Contributing Writer

In the summer between her freshman and sophomore years at college, Adrienne Harlow found a hard lump in her breast. After looking for information online and talking with her mother, she went to see her gynecologist. “She wasn’t too concerned,” Adrienne says.

The gynecologist sent her for an ultrasound, which showed nothing. What’s more, the sonographer told Adrienne she couldn’t have breast cancer because she was only 19 and had no family history of the disease.

Still, Adrienne worried. She had learned that a non-cancerous breast lump would probably come and go with her periods. Her lump stayed. “I also had an inverted nipple and that kind of bothered me,” she says.

Over the next few months, Adrienne returned to the gynecologist several times, each time being sent for an ultrasound. Finally, the doctor suggested she might want to ease her mind by seeing a breast surgeon.

The surgeon also told her she couldn’t have breast cancer, but said he would take out the lump to make her “feel more comfortable.”

Adrienne had surgery on a Friday and went back to her college courses on Monday. In the day’s last class, she received a message from the gynecologist, saying they needed to talk about her biopsy results.

“I remember smiling, not because I was happy, but because I felt justified,” Adrienne says. “Nobody listened to me and I knew the whole time.” She was diagnosed with stage I hormone-positive, HER2 negative breast cancer.

Treatment at 19

When diagnosed, Adrienne was a sophomore, living on campus in Indianapolis, about 90 minutes from home. Her family provided a good support system, but “it was a weird time with my friends,” she recalls. “I felt like I lost a lot of friends. They didn’t know what to say. They were worried and concerned, but more about their own lives.”

Some friends did come through for her. Several professors were helpful and she decided to stay in school during treatment. Yet Adrienne also had to think about things most 19-year-olds never face: lumpectomy,chemotherapy, radiation, hormonal therapy.

“From Day One, [the doctors] told me kids might not be a possibility,” she says. If she wanted children, she would first have to take tamoxifen for five years. Her doctors advised her to finish with pregnancy by age 30 because her ovaries might need to be removed to lower her estrogen levels.

Before treatment began, Adrienne was also told about the option of freezing her eggs to try later in life for a pregnancy. “I didn’t have time to think about it and my insurance didn’t cover it,” says Adrienne, who is now 24 and handles sales and marketing for an Indianapolis bar. “As I grow older and closer to 30, I keep hearing about it. It’s one of those things that keeps freaking you out.”

While on tamoxifen, she developed ovarian cysts and precancerous cysts on her uterine lining that needed surgery. She stopped tamoxifen after taking it for more than four years and now takes no medicine for breast cancer.

“Instead of talking about my options for kids, I’m talking about my options for living,” she says.

Adrienne visits her doctor regularly and is monitored by ultrasound and MRI. She has experienced depression and sees a therapist, which has helped.

“There are hard days,” she says, “especially at a young age, when you have little to fall back on.”

Speaking Out

That understanding led Adrienne to a new commitment: building public awareness about young women and breast cancer by speaking to college classes, at community events and in the media. Through that volunteer work, she has met many young women like herself.

“What motivates me to go out there is because they all were diagnosed like I was—told there was no way they could have breast cancer,” she says. “I have friends who were diagnosed at stage IV. I feel like I owe it to them to go out there.”

By focusing on the reality that breast cancer can happen to young women, she hopes to encourage more women to pay attention to their bodies. “My [breast cancer] doctors told me that my persistence saved my own life,” Adrienne says.

Now she wants to help other young women learn to listen to their instincts, especially when they think something may be wrong.

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This article was supported by Cooperative Agreement Number DP11-1111 from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

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