Visiting 15-40 Connection’s website and hearing about its mission was the first step to changing the way 29-year-old Caitlin Whitney, an elementary school teacher, thought about cancer and her role in her healthcare. It is where she learned that nearly 80,000 teens and young adults are diagnosed with cancer in the United States every year (five times the number of younger children), and more alarmingly that survival rates in this age group have barely improved since 1975 in large part because of delayed diagnosis.
Caitlin followed 15-40 Connection on social media and became more aware of the obstacles that delay a cancer diagnosis in teens and young adults. The “Learn from Me” stories from young adult cancer survivors made it all very relatable. She credits these lessons with saving her life.
In February 2014, Caitlin’s colleague confided in her that she found a breast lump. While they both worried that it could be cancer, tests thankfully revealed that it was not. Three months later, Caitlin found a breast lump of her own. She experienced the same fear that had struck her colleague: “Could it be cancer?” If it was, 15-40 Connection had made her acutely aware of her role in earlier cancer detection, and it was an advantage she wanted.
It had been six years since she had her last appointment with her doctor, but first thing in the morning she called her doctor’s office and asked to be seen that day. She was offered an appointment for more than three weeks later, but Caitlin insisted that she be seen that day. Some call it instinct, others call it an inner voice, and Caitlin described it as her gut screaming that this was serious.
After a six-year absence, Caitlin’s doctor wanted to do a full exam and was not alarmed by the lump. But Caitlin was; she knew what was normal for her and that this lump was a change to her normal health. This awareness gave her the confidence to trust her instinct that she was not another young woman with dense breasts. She insisted that the focus be on the lump, and that led to an ultrasound. The ultrasound revealed a solid mass, but her doctor wanted to take a wait-and- see approach. If the lump changed over time, the next step would be a biopsy to determine if it was cancer. Caitlin did not want to wait, and had a biopsy done two days later. On May 29, 2014 Caitlin learned that she had a very aggressive breast cancer.
Caitlin’s awareness and actions gave her the advantage of early cancer detection. She was diagnosed at an early stage 1. The survival rate for stage 1 breast cancer is 99%. This rate drops to 25% at stage 4. Her oncologist told her that had her diagnosis been delayed just three to six more weeks, her cancer would have progressed to a stage 2 or possibly a stage 3. Her cancer was removed through surgery, and because of the aggressive nature of her cancer, surgery was followed by chemotherapy.
With a very good prognosis in hand and while in the middle of her cancer treatments, Caitlin called 15-40 Connection to say, “Thank you for saving my life.” She explained that if she had not been tuned into 15-40 Connection’s messages and education, she would have reacted to the lump and handled the interaction with her doctor very differently. Her diagnosis would have been delayed, and as a result her prognosis would have been very different.
Caitlin said, “When I found out that I had breast cancer, I had a moment of asking ‘why me?’ but ultimately decided, it’s me for a reason. I learned that I do not have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes (known breast cancer genes), so I may never know why I got cancer, but now my mission is to play it forward. I must raise awareness and support 15-40 Connection and help get the message out about early detection. Early detection and not taking ‘no’ for an answer saved my life, and in telling my story, I hope it saves someone else’s.”
In reflecting on her cancer experience, Caitlin added, “Although this journey is not always easy, and it is hard to stay positive all the time, my friends and family are there to keep me motivated to move forward. I try to remember that my journey is unfolding exactly as it should be.”
Update: Caitlin Whitney finished treatment in the summer of 2015 and has since been declared cancer-free!
Learn More: 3 steps to early cancer detection
Note: Harrington HealthCare System is proud to share the mission and stories of 15-40 Connection in an effort to raise awareness about recognizing cancer symptoms and being an advocate for your own health. We are not affiliated with 15-40. For more information on 15-40 Connection, visit www.15-40.org.