Breast Cancer at 23
Cancer was not in Slayton Haney's plan after college. But with help from other young women with cancer — including Giuliana Rancic — she's making peace with it.
By Allison Takeda
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Six months ago, Slayton Haney was like so many other twenty-somethings fresh out of college: newly on her own and just settling into her life and career as an adult. After graduating from Florida State University in 2011 with a degree in finance, she got a job as an accountant at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando, where she moved in with a friend from school. Life was good.
Then, in May, Haney felt something in her breast. A lump. At first, she didn’t think much of it. Most breast lumps, after all — between 80 percent and 85 percent, according to the Mayo Clinic — are benign, caused by hormone fluctuations or temporary infections. And Haney was young and healthy, with no family history of or genetic predisposition to the disease. The odds were definitely in her favor.
Weeks later, however, the lump still had not gone away. So, after consulting with her mother, Haney had it checked out by a gynecologist, who assured her that it was probably nothing but suggested she see a surgeon for a biopsy and a second opinion. The results came back within a few days. And they were not good: Haney, barely one year out of school and a full two birthdays shy of 25, had breast cancer.
“I was just a normal 23-year-old living my life,” says Haney, a bubbly, blonde, ex-sorority girl from Jacksonville, Fla. “And then this happened.”
‘It’s Like Getting Hit by Lightning’
Breast cancer is the second-most common cancer among women in the United States. This year, more than 226,000 new cases will be diagnosed, most in women over 45. Only 1 in 8 instances occur in people younger than that, and even then, the disease is far more common among those in their thirties and early forties. According to data from the American Cancer Society, the probability of a woman getting breast cancer is just 1 in 1,681 at age 20, compared with 1 in 232 at age 30, and 1 in 69 at age 40.
Certain women may be at higher risk, of course, but Haney was not thought to be among them. Aside from gender, she had none of the traditional risk factors. Though her mother is a thyroid cancer survivor, there was no history of breast or ovarian cancer on either side of the family, and both she and her mom tested negative for the BRCA 1 and 2 gene mutations. Haney had also been active her entire life, so she was and remains in great shape.
“We were so confused,” she recalls of her diagnosis, adding that she knows women who are considered high risk but who don’t have the disease. “I wanted to know why [I got sick], but doctors say it’s kind of like getting hit by lightning — you can’t really explain it.” There’s a lot that can’t be explained. Breast cancer in young people comes with a specific set of challenges and complications, many which are not fully understood. A growing body of evidence suggests the disease is actually biologically different depending on your age. Compared with older women, younger women generally face more aggressive cancers, higher rates of recurrence, and lower survival rates.
Compounding this is that no effective screening tool exists for people under 40. Most women don’t start getting mammograms until later in life, so the disease may go undetected in younger individuals who don’t know what signs or symptoms to look for.
“There are so many women who wait,” Haney says. “Most people my age put off [getting checked]. They just don’t think it’s anything to worry about. I feel really lucky that we caught my cancer early.”
An Aggressive Approach to Treatment
Haney’s official diagnosis is stage IIA breast cancer, which generally means the tumor is between 2 and 5 centimeters and has spread to fewer than three lymph nodes. In many such cases, doctors can remove the cancer with clear margins via a lumpectomy, which leaves the rest of the breast intact. However, some women opt to have the entire breast or both breasts removed via prophylactic (preventive) mastectomy.
Preventive mastectomies have become increasingly popular among women facing life with breast cancer. Rates among younger patients in particular have tripled since 2000, according to researchers from the University of Minnesota, in part because of the availability of genetic testing, which women are increasingly using to predict their lifetime risk of cancer. Scientists speculate that many of those who choose preventive mastectomies do so because they test positive for the BRCA gene mutations.
Haney originally planned to have just a lumpectomy, since doctors told her that a mastectomy would have no effect on her survival rate. But the more she thought about it, the more she realized she didn’t want tokeepthinking about it.
“When I was first diagnosed, I said I wanted the least-invasive procedure possible. I’d never had surgery before, so I wanted to do whatever would be the easiest. But after talking it over with my doctors and some of my mom’s friends who have breast cancer, I decided I didn’t want to live the rest of my life worrying about getting sick again. I wanted to just take care of it, and then I wanted to move on,” she says. “I even asked the doctors at Mayo, ‘If I were your daughter or your sister, what would you want me to do?’ And they all answered, ‘Oh, definitely a mastectomy.’ So I said, ‘Take them off.’ ”
'I'm Happy With My Mastectomy'
On July 21, surgeons removed her breasts and began reconstruction, per Haney’s request. The next day, she tweeted a photo of herself sitting up in her hospital bed: "23 years old, 23 hours after a double mastectomy."
She included a note of thanks to E! News host and reality TV star Giuliana Rancic, who was diagnosed with breast cancer last fall at 37 and had a double mastectomy in December. Haney says Rancic’s public struggle with the disease inspired her and gave her courage.
"Thanks for being a great role model, @GiulianaRancic.”
Rancic saw Haney’s message the next day and retweeted it to all of her followers, with an added note of support: “Welcome to the club!”
“There are so many well wishes and amazing women sharing their stories with me on Twitter,” Rancic says. “What caught my attention about Slayton was her young age and that picture she sent me. It reminded me so much of my own experience.”
Haney was thrilled to hear from Rancic. But more than that, she was happy to just connect with other women who knew what she was going through.
“After her message, a lot of her followers started tweeting at me and sending me their support,” she says. "It was really neat…a happy surprise.”
Haney still has to undergo four rounds of chemotherapy beginning later this month, but she won’t go it alone. Her family and friends have rallied around her online, and her boyfriend, Mike, has been a huge help in taking care of her in Orlando. Haney says she is pleased.
Her new breasts “look really good,” she says. “They did the nipple-sparing surgery, so they look like my breasts, but better. The mastectomy was really the best decision I could have made. I just can’t live always looking back, you know? It’s already been traumatic enough.
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