‘I’m still young’: Atrium program researches, supports younger breast cancer patients

CHARLOTTE — A doctor at Atrium Health says only 6% of women diagnosed with breast cancer are under the age of 40. The CDC says most women are diagnosed after the age of 50.

A diagnosis at a young age can be challenging -- many women are in the middle of their careers or starting a family.

Brooke Hager told Channel 9′s Gina Esposito she found out she had breast cancer in 2020, just two days into her residency.

“No at 26, you don’t expect to hear that,” she said.

She found a warning sign just as she was starting her residency in Charlotte.

“About a week or so into orientation, I was in the shower and I noticed a lump,” Hager said.

Hager was diagnosed with triple-positive breast cancer. The news forced the young doctor to take a break from her career while she underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment. She described herself as upset and in shock about her diagnosis.

“Being so young, I was like ‘what do we do from here?’” she said. “Like I’m still young. I don’t have kids yet. I don’t have a family yet. What does this look like for me going down the road even with side-effects? What does chemo do to you? What does radiation do to you? What is surgery going to do?”

Doctor Lejla Hadzikadic-Gusic is the co-director of the Sandra Levine Young Women’s Breast Cancer Program at Atrium Health’s Levine Cancer Institute.

“At her age in her 20s, it was refreshing that she still had all her options of care to her,” Dr. Hadzikadic-Gusic told Esposito. “We are proud to say we’ve continued research at the institute here to say young women can still can choose what kind of surgery they have and it doesn’t have to be the most aggressive one.”

There are only four programs like it in the country geared towards supporting young women and the unique challenges they face with breast cancer. Those obstacles include how to navigate treatment options in the midst of a career or starting a family. It also focuses on research for women under 40, since most studies are done on postmenopausal women.

Now cancer-free, Hager is back at work and feeling good about her dreams of one day having a family. She credits the program at Atrium Health, her family and God for getting her through it all and for giving her a voice.

“It’s definitely not about me and my story,” Hager said. “It’s about getting screened early. It’s about knowing your body. I tell people that. You are the best advocate for yourself.”

Since women aren’t screened for breast cancer until they hit 40, doctors say most women under 40 find out about the cancer at the doctor’s office or in the shower through a self-exam.

The doctor Esposito spoke with says while they’re not at the point where they can say a woman’s cancer can never come back, the timeframe has become longer.

If you want to learn more about the program at Atrium Health, click here.

(WATCH BELOW: FDA greenlights human clinical trials for Cleveland Clinic’s breast cancer vaccine)