Breast cancer strikes young women, too

Appeared in BJC Today. Written by Jason Merrill.

For many people, their early twenties can be some of life’s most stressful. It’s an adjustment period of being on your own for the first time, for college graduations and the stress of finding and landing that first job.

But for 24 year-old Melissa Straube of Highland, IL, that stress was compounded by words she didn’t expect to ever hear at her young age: “You have breast cancer.”

“When my doctor told me he said, ‘I’m in tears telling you this, I never expected to say you have breast cancer,'” says Straube. “It was such a blur I broke down.”

While breast cancer occurs in people under age 30, it is rare. According to data from the American Cancer Society, one in seven women were diagnosed with breast cancer between 1999-2001. From birth to age 30 those odds plummeted to one in 251.

“It would have been a shock anyway,” says Straube, now 25. “But I didn’t even have any cancer in my family.”

Melissa Straube with her fiancé Aaron Nehrt
Melissa Straube with her fiancé Aaron Nehrt

According to Straube’s surgeon, Jill Dietz, MD, breast surgeon at the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, being a younger age adds additional stress to an already emotional breast cancer diagnosis. “When you’re over age 40, more often than not you’re life is more established with a family and career,” says Dr. Dietz. “For younger patients those circumstances are often much different.”

Straube became Dr. Dietz’s patient after she was referred to the Siteman Cancer Center’s multidisciplinary program, where she could meet with all her treating physicians in one place. She faced bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and breast reconstruction.

Such daunting treatment at age 24 forced Straube to confront challenges that most breast cancer patients don’t face. She had to put off finishing her master’s degree in business administration at SIU-Edwardsville and face medical bills while facing the struggles most young people have when they’re yet to be financially established.

Jill Bokern, RN, nurse coordinator in Siteman’s breast health center, put Straube in touch with Siteman’s Young Women’s Breast Cancer Program. Made possible by a grant from the St. Louis Affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the program helps young women through the emotional and social experiences unique to them by offering other young women as mentors. Now in it’s third year of funding, the program is led by Dr. Dietz and Jennifer Ivanovich, genetic counselor at Siteman.

“Jill set me up with others in my situation who could help me,” says Straube. “Even though I was the youngest in that group, you discuss your emotions and you find out you’re not alone and that there are others like you.”

Straube says she’s fortunate to have the friendship and support of many. At the 2004 Komen-St. Louis Race for the Cure, those friends helped Straube organize the second largest individual new team in the race with 91 members. Now finished with treatment, she will be at the race again in 2005 with something new on her left hand.

Her fiancée Aaron Nehrt asked her to marry him on October 8, 2004. “I’m getting married on December 3rd and I set the wedding date on the same day I found out I was in remission,” says Straube. “That date means a lot to me.”

The date for the 2005 race is Saturday, June 18. To sign up as a member of the Siteman team, visit the Komen St. Louis Web site at by May 31. Be sure to select team number 1952.

For more information about the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Program, call 314-454-5076.