Breast cancer conference opens in Dublin

Thu, Nov 8, 2012, 00:00

A breast cancer survivor who was diagnosed at the age of 32 opened an international conference on the disease in young women at University College Dublin today.

Gillian O’Dowd, a mother of two from Dublin, delivered the opening address to an audience of consultants, researchers and patient advocates, calling for tailored support and resources for young women who are diagnosed with the disease.

Just 5 per cent of all breast cancer cases occur in patients under the age of 40, but survival rates in younger women are lower than in older patients.

Conference chairman James Geraghty, a consultant breast surgeon at St Vincent’s University Hospital and senior lecturer at UCD, said younger women have specific support needs relating to post-treatment fertility, pregnancy and mental health that differ to the requirements of older patients.

Breast cancer in younger women can be “particularly devastating”, he said, as they are often at the peak of their reproductive years when career and family life are very important.

“A diagnosis can press an involuntary pause button on many aspects of day-to-day life, and presents a host of associated issues including breast cancer during pregnancy, fertility after chemotherapy and psychosocial effects on families and relationships,” he said.

While treatment and therapy is always the main concern, “it is also essential to consider the long-term psychological and emotional effects on young women who, post-diagnosis, must progress through life under the shadow of possible recurrence,” Mr Geraghty added.

The conference, which is being jointly hosted by UCD, St Vincent’s University Hospital and the European School of Oncology, is the first of its kind in Ireland.

Dr Bella Kaufman of the Sheba Medical Centre in Israel also spoke at the opening session, setting out the case for increasing the clinical focus on breast cancer in young women.

“Breast cancer is by far the most common malignancy worldwide and prevalence is growing,” she said.

“While the risk of breast cancer in women below the age of 40 is low, we have found that when it does strike it tends to be more aggressive and more likely to recur.”

Ms O’Dowd discovered a lump on her breast while on honeymoon in 2005.

“My life at the time moved at a fast pace and was filled with activity and ambition. I worked in a high-pressure job in corporate finance, I travelled a lot,” she told the conference.

“To say it was a shock is such an understatement. Overnight I went from worrying about work and the normal pressures in life to coping with the prospect of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.”

Ms O’Dowd said she had experienced concerns over her fertility at the time of her diagnosis, but felt there was little professional support available relevant to a woman of her age.

She said it was vital that young women in a position similar to hers receive tailored advice and support at the time of their diagnosis.

Ms O’Dowd has fully recovered and gave birth to twins earlier this year. She is now involved with the Irish Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery peer support service for young women who have recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.

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