Written by Robin Warshaw, Contributing Writer
If she hadn’t been a young woman, Meghan Malley believes, her concerns about breast pain and breast changes would have been investigated more carefully. That realization has fueled her commitment to help other young women.
Meghan had a noncancerous breast tumor removed when she was 21. For years after, her doctor said pain she had in the same breast was nothing serious. At 27, that breast developed dense tissue. Meghan worried because her family has a history of cancer, including breast cancer.
She was denied a mammogram at first due to being younger than guidelines recommend. After she received the test, she was told she had fibrocystic or dense breasts.
Meghan and her husband, who live in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, wanted to start a family. She began taking medicine to increase ovulation and had breast pain again. A breast ultrasound showed increased bloodflow compared to tests conducted the previous year. The doctor thought the change was caused by the fertility medicine and, again, told her not to worry.
She objected because she had been on the medicine for only a month. “I demanded that somebody follow up.”
A breast surgeon examined her, found swollen lymph nodes and did an immediate biopsy. Meghan had stage IV, or metastatic, breast cancer. She was 29. The disease was lobular, a type not easily detected on mammograms.
After considering her options, she chose a Comprehensive Cancer Center in Detroit for treatment. Meghan, who is receiving ongoing treatment, now sees herself as a partner with her oncologist in her care.
She also decided to expand her advocacy efforts. “I was an advocate for myself at the doctor’s and that failed me,” she says. “There are still a lot of things we need to do better—screening for young women, (detection in) dense breasts, inclusion of metastatic women at events….It just takes one person to speak up.”
From Passion to Action
With help from a cancer center social worker, Meghan organized a wellness support group for women in their 40s and younger. Like Meghan, many who join do not feel comfortable in groups with mostly older women.
She had tried attending a group for young women with breast cancer, but she didn’t return. As the only woman there with metastatic disease, “they looked at me like their worst nightmare,” she says.
The monthly wellness group is open to young women with any cancer type or stage. “It’s nice to have people who can understand where you’re coming from. They have some of the same pains, hurts and dilemmas in life,” Meghan says.
Now 32 and a full-time physical therapist, she enjoys being a professional caregiver for people with neurological conditions. She says her experience “helped me become a better clinician. It gives me a greater appreciation of what [my patients] are going through, and the trials and tribulations of living life with what is, most of the time, an incurable disease.”
On weekends, she takes photographs as a side business. “Photography has been a big emotional help. Behind the lens, I don’t feel like a patient,” she says.
Meghan participates in breast cancer events, won an award for her advocacy and appears in several LBBC videos on young women’s issues.
“I feel like we all can try and make a difference,” she says. “I don’t have a choice about having this disease for the rest of my life. If I have to go through this, I want to at least have a positive impact.”
Staying in Balance
Meghan’s network of friends and family gives her strength. She and her husband were high school sweethearts. He has been “amazingly supportive” as she dealt with the disease and the “guilt and sadness…all these things you don’t expect to think about when you’re 29.”
“He reassures me we can get through anything,” she says.
They have busy, full lives. “We may do more now, instead of putting it off. It’s given us a better appreciation for each other.”
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.