Denise Roberts was about to turn 35 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, but she’d known she was sick for longer than that.
“I had insurance. I was educated. My husband is a doctor, and it took me almost three years before I could talk my doctor into getting me a mammogram because of the symptoms I was having,” Roberts said in a phone interview with CLUTCH.
Her doctors told her she was too young. They gave her Niacin for her hair loss. They told her she was exhausted because she was the mother of two. They told her everything but that what was robbing her of her youth, hair, and energy could be cancer.
And while Roberts would like to believe this was an isolated incident, 20 years and a modified mastectomy later, Roberts says it’s still happening – young black women getting breast cancer and everyone – from the patients themselves to the doctors are missing the signs.
Founder of the Denise Roberts Breast Cancer Foundation, Roberts’ mission is to spread awareness in the group most neglected during October’s Breast Cancer Awareness walks and fund-raisers – young, African-American women.
Roberts says doctors and patients are missing the signs because they still see breast cancer as an older woman’s disease. Of the quarter-million of women who get the disease, 11,000 of these women are under 40. And black women under 40 are the group most likely to die from the disease, but not because of any genetic factors, but because they are the least likely to be screened, seek treatment early, or be properly diagnosed by their doctors.
“We need to stop talking about age and start talking about prevention,” Roberts said.
But prevention can be hard to come by. Many minority women either have no insurance or are under-insured. And even those who do have doctors run into other hurdles – younger and younger doctors who focus more on treating symptoms than preventative measures that keep you out of the hospital completely. More than most, younger women are taking less time to take care of themselves with healthy nutrition and exercise regimens, neglecting all cardio exercise even in the form of exercise bikes.
Roberts blames the influence of money and the insurance industry for the emphasis on costly treatments over much cheaper preventive measures.
“If you’re curing everybody, no one is going to get paid. They’re not saying they don’t want to prevent, not diagnose,” she said.
For instance, Roberts said her doctor initially encouraged her to try to salvage her breast because he thought she wouldn’t want to lose the “look.” Roberts didn’t listen, opting for a modified mastectomy on her right breast that saved her life.
“There were seven more (cancerous tumors) that wouldn’t have been seen or treated if they hadn’t removed it,” she said, crediting having an aggressive surgeon and a second medical opinion that saved her life.
That second opinion argued that due to her age and background – and the fact three years had passed – there was a good chance the cancer had moved to other parts of her body. While it hadn’t, it was deeper in her breast tissue in the same breast where the initial lump was found.