November 2012

UCD Hosts International Conference on Breast Cancer in Young Women

Mon, 12 November 12 09:00

Image: [L-R] Gillian O'Dowd, breast cancer survivor and peer advocate with Irish Cancer Society & Mr James Geraghty, Consultant Breast Surgeon at St Vincent's University Hospital

University College Dublin, in association with St Vincent's University Hospital and the European School of Oncology hosted an international conference on breast cancer in young women from 8th-10th November 2012. The conference, chaired by Mr James Geraghty, consultant breast surgeon at St Vincent’s University Hospital and senior lecturer at University College Dublin included presentations from leading international breast cancer experts on a range of issues including surgery, genetics, fertility preservation and mental health implications of diagnoses.

Gillian O’Dowd, a breast cancer survivor and advocate with the Irish Cancer Society, opened the conference with a moving account of her own journey through diagnosis, treatment and recovery. Delivering the opening address to an audience of consultants, researchers and patient advocates, Ms O’Dowd spoke of her experience as one of the five per cent of breast cancer patients who received a diagnosis under the age of 40. Ms O’Dowd called for tailored support and resources for young women who are diagnosed with the disease.

Cancer is devastating regardless of age or background but it is particularly life-changing for young women. My life at the time moved at a fast pace and was filled with activity and ambition: I worked in a high-pressure job in corporate finance, I travelled a lot and I got married in the middle of that year. While on my honeymoon, I found a lump on my breast. When I got back, my GP sent me to hospital for tests; although I never seriously worried that I had breast cancer.

I will never forget the day that I was diagnosed. To say it was a shock is such an understatement: overnight I went from worrying about work and the normal pressures in life to coping with the prospect of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

The risk of breast cancer in women below the age of 40 is less than one per cent, but survival rates in younger women are poorer than in older patients.

Ms O’Dowd recalled her fears regarding fertility and pregnancy at the time of diagnosis and said that it is essential that young women receive tailored advice and support during the period immediately following a breast cancer confirmation.

While things have improved since 2005 when I was diagnosed, most of the support professionals at the time did not seem to have much experience of dealing with younger women. This was difficult, as I felt that the kind of support structures that were in place were not relevant to a woman of my age. I worried hugely that I wouldn’t be able to have a family, and the potential impact of chemotherapy and radiotherapy weighed very heavily on me,” said Ms O’Dowd.

Attendees at Breast Cancer in Young Women Conference Gillian has since made a full recovery and successfully gave birth to twins, Enda and Sophie, in March 2012. Since her recovery from breast cancer, she has taken up the cause of providing support, advice and guidance to newly diagnosed young women through the Irish Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery peer support service.

The conference had a strong patient and advocate focus throughout. Mr James Geraghty, conference chair, dedicated the opening session to the memory of Christine Murphy Whyte, former chairperson of Europa Donna Ireland. Christine was a tireless and extremely skilled advocate for patients with breast cancer before her death in 2005. Mr Geraghty said that he was particularly touched and pleased that the conference could be opened in Christine's name, in the presence of her family.

Later Mr Geraghty reminded attendees of the healthcare context for the conference:

Breast cancer in women below the age of 40 can be particularly devastating as these women are often at the peak of their reproductive years, with professional and family lives still very much to the fore.  A diagnosis can press an involuntary pause button on many aspects of day-to-day life, and presents a host of associated issues including breast cancer during pregnancy, fertility after chemotherapy and psychosocial effects on families and relationships.

The opening session also heard from Dr Bella Kaufman, Sheba Medical Centre, Israel, who set out the case for increasing the clinical and research focus on breast cancer in young women.

Breast cancer is by far the most common malignancy worldwide and prevalence is growing. While the risk of breast cancer in women below the age of 40 is low, we have found that when it does strike it tends to be more aggressive and more likely to recur.”

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