While breast cancer is often thought of as something to be proactive about after 40, in this series, Breast Cancer At Any Age, we speak to women who had scares or battled breast cancer at a much younger age than expected.
At the age of 22, the idea of one being diagnosed with breast cancer sounds almost impossible. It contradicts the messages many of us hear about the disease, which is that it usually comes about in middle-aged and older women. That reasoning is why when Kayla Medley went to her doctor at that age in 2021, then a new graduate of Morgan State University ready to start her next chapter and career, her physician, a Black woman, dismissed her concerns about a lump.
“I felt a lump in my left breast and I had very small breasts, so it was protruding. It was small at that time,” she tells ESSENCE. “I was at my annual Ob-Gyn appointment, and I let her know that I felt this lump and thought it wasn’t normal and I brought it to her attention when she was doing her breast exam. She asked me if I had any family history and I told her no. And then she was just like, ‘Well, you’re fine. You’re only 22.'”
As it would turn out, despite being brushed off, Medley wasn’t fine. A year later, as she watched the lump grow and couldn’t shake the reality that she wasn’t being heard, she sought a second opinion.
“I went to a new doctor and she was like, ‘No, this is serious,'” she recalls. “She couldn’t believe the previous doctor dismissed it. She did a breast exam and we went on and got the proper testing. I got a biopsy and it came back positive for Stage 2 HER2-negative ER positive in basal duct carcinoma, so breast cancer of my left breast.”
At 23, Medley had been diagnosed with breast cancer, Stage 2, despite her family having no prior history with the disease. They were understandably confused. They were also angry.
“I personally feel that if that doctor, the first one I went to, would’ve addressed it then, it wouldn’t have progressed to Stage 2 and it wouldn’t have spread to my lymph nodes and it would’ve been less severe,” she says.
But Medley got proactive about treatment. She was encouraged to get chemotherapy, and beforehand, completed IVF to preserve her eggs. Nineteen were saved. In addition to that, she was told about a lumpectomy, but opted to go through with a double mastectomy.
“I figured if I was going under the knife, I just want it to be a one-and-done thing, and because I’m so young, I don’t want any possibilities of recurrence. I just figured, ‘Let me just get it all out,'” she says. “They have options for reconstruction and that’s the route that I chose to go.”
One and done wouldn’t be possible though. Just this past May, Medley underwent the surgery and is preparing for a second one in early 2024 where silicone implants will be placed now that she’s finished radiation. But in addition to that, she also required an additional surgery, an auxiliary dissection, where remaining cancerous cells in her lymph nodes through her left armpit were removed. It’s been “stressful,” as she now has limited movement in her left arm and as an avid gymgoer, saw her ability to be active, which was also helpful for her mental health as she went through chemotherapy, halted as she heals from multiple surgeries. But her efforts have made a difference and she has started Tamoxifen to prevent a recurrence.
“Now I’m officially in remission,” she says. “I’m very happy and blessed to say that.”
As she moves forward, Medley’s work with the African Women’s Cancer Awareness Association in Prince George’s County, Maryland, has become a major focus. She was actually involved with the organization before she was diagnosed while awaiting her biopsy results in 2022. Members provided reassurance throughout her journey and took her under their wing. “I am the youngest member, so it’s a group of amazing women. They are such a great support system for me. And that’s really what it was. It was sisterhood and support, just seeing older women who are survivors and are healthy and thriving, and just seeing that, that will be me one day, it’s very inspiring,” she says. The group raises money to help women battling the disease, doing so through events like their Ladies First Brunch and a fashion show featuring survivors, continuing the fight. They also offer free mammograms for those who don’t have insurance to cover it.
Now 24, she also is preparing to go back to school, inspired by her situation and the AWCAA to work in healthcare and save lives. “I’m working to get my master’s in physician assistant studies because that’s a goal of mine, to work in women’s health and help women with things like this, breast cancer, and all cancer diagnoses.”
For now, she encourages all women, including her sisters and her mother, to be on top of their health. She recommends monthly breast exams. If you feel something, say something, and if you say something and don’t feel heard or taken seriously, she says seek a second opinion sooner than later until you get answers.
“A lot of young women are getting diagnosed with cancer, not only breast cancer, but different cancers. A lot of young, not even women, just people in general, in this year, it’s been an uptick in younger diagnoses. I just want people to be proactive and go to those annual exams because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t even have had a breast exam,” says Medley. “Go to your physicals, just stay on top of your health is what I want young people to do. Because we think we’re young, we don’t have to worry about anything, but in reality, we really do. And if we want to live long, healthy lives, I think that we should take care of ourselves.”
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