When breast cancer strikes young

This week’s edition of Vida features the stories of two Latinas – Jamie Ledezma, of Fresno, and Jennifer Solorio, of Sacramento – who were diagnosed with breast cancer before they’d had children or celebrated their 35th birthdays.

They are among an estimated 13,000 women under age 40 diagnosed with breast cancer every year.

There is less research on, and less awareness of, breast cancer among young women, but that doesn’t mean it’s less of a threat. In fact, young women with breast cancer have a lower five-year survival rate (84 percent) than those diagnosed at 40 years of age or older (90 percent,) according to the American Cancer Society.

But as you’ll hear from Ledezma and Solorio, young women can survive – and thrive – after breast cancer.

JAMIE LEDEZMA

When she was diagnosed: In Feb. 2007, when she was 27 years old and 14 weeks pregnant

Her reaction to the diagnosis: “”I was aware that I would probably be touched with cancer, statistically, at some point in my life. But I always imagined that it would be in my golden years; I always imagined that after I had a career and raised my children and was doting on my grandchildren, I would probably be touched by cancer.”

Her guiding philosophy during treatment: “If every doctor told me they were going to do everything possible to make sure I’d have a healthy baby, then I was going to do everything possible to make sure I had a happy baby. I had control over how we were going to react, and I was going to be grateful that we were pregnant, I was going to be grateful that we were given a chance to save both of our lives, that medicine had advanced as far as it had.”

A new perspective: “I’m grateful that because of cancer, I’m trying not to live a life full of regrets, so I won’t get to that rocking chair and wonder why I didn’t try this, or take this leap of faith, or give more, or love more or help more.”

JENNIFER SOLORIO

When she was diagnosed: March 2010, when she was 32 years old

Her reaction to the diagnosis: “I’m 32 years old — I’m young, I’m single, I have this whole life ahead of me that I want to live, and these hopes and dreams. I want to have kids — who knows if I’ll ever be able to have children.”

Support during treatment: “I automatically felt like everyone was pulling for me, and there was no way I could fall down.”

A new perspective: “They say don’t sweat the small stuff – I really don’t. I try not to stress and worry anymore. I have no room in my life for that anymore. I laugh more, I’m more relaxed and laid back now.”

A message for other women: “Breast cancer doesn’t discriminate – it can happen to anybody. I just really encourage Latina women to know their bodies and be their own health advocates. If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, it can be a traumatic experience, it is a life-changing diagnosis. But if caught early, you can get through it.”

Cancer, previously on Harvesting Health:

The American Dream… of Health Care

UPDATE: “The Eternal Optimist” can be read here. The video about Georgina González, produced by Jacob Simas of New America Media, is below.

About three years ago, Georgina González left her three siblings, three children, and three grandchildren in Puebla, México and immigrated to Fresno in search of better economic opportunities.

What she found here, though, was an opportunity to receive health care after she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year.

“I have seen that God brought me to this country to be cured,” González told me. “It’s possible that in my country, I would not have had that opportunity.”

González’s story – which will be in next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle – is so personal, and so universal at the same time. (A video, created by Jacob Simas of New America Media, will accompany the story!)

González is a petite woman who has confronted her breast cancer diagnosis, and resulting surgery, physical therapy, and radiation treatment, with faith, optimism, and inner strength.

When she squeezed her palm into a tight fist, and over the chatter of a Fresno taquería declared, “I’m not going to cry” – I believed her.

Her story also has a larger meaning: As a low-income immigrant, González is one of the many women who have benefitted from the state’s safety-net health programs. Many of these valuable state programs, though, could be cut when Gov. Brown releases his proposed budget on Monday.

Through the Every Woman Counts cancer detection program, González received a free mammogram – and learned she had breast cancer. The Every Woman Counts was a victim of budget cuts last year, but it was reinstated in December. Some people suspect it will face more cuts when Gov. Jerry Brown releases his state budget on Monday.

And through the state’s Breast Cancer and Cervical Cancer Treatment Program, González has received temporary Medi-Cal benefits that have covered all of her cancer-related treatment and medication. A spokesman for the state Department of Health Care Services said he does not expect budget cuts to impact this program.

Though we began this story thinking it would be about González’s journey through the health care system, we realized it’s also about a different type of American Dream: having – and possibly losing – the opportunity to receive quality health care.

“If it weren’t for (those programs), I truly don’t know what I would have done,” she said.