At 23 years old, doctors, nurses and ultrasound technicians told Melissa Boratyn she was too young to have cancer.
Two-and-a-half years later, she can say she is a survivor. Boratyn’s story is what inspired her and her husband, Jimmy Boratyn, who graduated from Loyola in 2011, to produce a film called Ginger.
Melissa, who graduated from Loyola in 2010 with a communications degree, had just turned 23 when she found a lump on one of her breasts. Her friends
and family told her not to worry about it; that was until the bump never went away.
The first doctor she saw told her she was too young to have breast cancer, and when he referred her to get a mammogram — an x-ray exam that evaluates changes in a woman’s breasts — the technicians called her doctor to confirm the referral because they didn’t think she was old enough to undergo the examination.
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death to women in the U.S. after skin cancers. For women ages 25 to 35, breast cancer is the seventh leading cause of death, and it climbs to the second leading cause of death for women ages 35 to 45, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cancer — especially breast cancer — is less common in young adults. In the U.S., the number of women who are between the ages of 25 to 39 and diagnosed with breast cancer has risen 3.6 percent from 2000 to 2009, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Rebecca Johnson, an oncologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, said breast cancer is 40 percent more likely to be terminal for younger women than for patients who have gone through menopause.
“Every step of the way, we were told she was too young to have breast cancer,” said Jimmy.
Melissa was working as a barista at Starbucks when she received the phone call that turned her life upside down. The biopsy results were in and doctors told her she had Stage 1 breast cancer. Since it was aggressive, she needed more examinations to make sure the cancer hadn’t spread and she started chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
After her treatments, Melissa went back to the doctors for mammograms every six months. She found out the cancer returned and since she already went through chemotherapy and radiation, the only other option was a single or double mastectomy, which is the surgical removal of a breast.
“I said, ‘Cut them both off because I’m not doing this again,’” Melissa said.
Boratyn underwent a double mastectomy and has been in remission for two-and-a-half years.
Cancer in adolescents tends to have a unique genetic makeup or biological features, making it more severe and harder for doctors to treat.
Melissa is now an advocate for research and awareness, and Jimmy is right there with her. With the help of three other Loyola alumni and a current School of Communications faculty member, Jeff Harder, the team is producing a film about Melissa’s story.
The film is about a 23-year-old woman who is diagnosed with breast cancer and forced to grow up faster. Following how her outlook on life changes, the story explores the psychological aspects of being diagnosed with cancer at a young age.
Although the story is mainly based on Melissa’s battle, the couple plans to incorporate other women’s stories to make the film relevant to a larger audience.
The couple is currently fundraising and expects to film next summer. Part of the profits from the film will be given to breast cancer research, they said.
It is still a mystery as to why or how she got breast cancer at such a young age. Although breast cancer runs in her family, her grandmother was in her late 40s and her great-grandmother was in her early 50s when they were diagnosed.
There are two types of risk factors for breast cancer patients: natural factors and risks based on a woman’s lifestyle.
Natural risk factors, which are unchangeable, include genetics, family history, the age a woman begins her menstrual cycle and when she experiences menopause, according to the American Cancer Association.
Lifestyle risk factors include not having children or waiting to have a child until after the age of 30, the American Cancer Society reported. Anything that manipulates a woman’s natural hormone balance increases her chance for breast cancer, including the use of birth control pills and the recombinant bovine growth hormone found in some dairy products. Obesity and diets high in fat also increase the risk of breast cancer.
For now, Melissa said the hardest part is living with the anxiety of her cancer returning.
“I worry about misdiagnosis a lot and about [the cancer] coming back,” she said. “I ask, you know, ‘Am I ever going to be OK?’”
Melissa said she advises women to be advocates for their own health.
“Number one thing is that you’re never too young,” she said. “Everyone told me I was too young and I didn’t have to worry about it, but if I waited until the appropriate age to get a mammogram, which is like 35, I could have had a … scarier diagnosis.”
There are no set guidelines as to when women should receive their first annual mammogram. Women can receive annual mammograms from Mayo Clinic beginning at the age of 40. The American Cancer Society suggests women begin getting annual mammograms when they turn 45 and continue until they’re 55.