TORONTO — Pynk, a program launched recently at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre, aims to provide help and support to young women battling breast cancer.
The name “Pynk” combines pink, the colour associated with breast cancer, with a “y” that stands for young women.
Sunnybrook medical oncologist and University of Toronto associate professor of medicine Dr. Ellen Warner founded the program, together with several young breast cancer survivors and Dr. Judith Weinroth. Weinroth, a general practitioner in oncology, serves as the program’s director.
Warner noted that while people tend to consider breast cancer a disease of older women, a significant number of women under the age of 40 develop it. Statistics from a Sunnybrook media release say that of an estimated 8,500 women diagnosed with breast cancer annually, five to 10 per cent of them are women under 40.
“Israeli researchers have shown, and I have seen, too, that young women have a worse time, and have a worse prognosis than older women” Warner said.
Besides the purely medical difficulties, she said, the psychological and social issues around breast cancer in young women is dramatic. Ten years after being diagnosed, she said, women still have difficulty because of the drugs and the treatment, including body image, infertility and weight gain.
“It can destroy marriages, educational opportunities, careers,” Warner said.
Tumours in older women tend to be discovered by regular screenings. “But the tumour has to be big enough to be seen on ultrasounds, and young women’s may grow too fast for this to be much good,” she said.
Symptoms such as lumps (often painless), a clear or bloody discharge from the nipple, or changes in the size, shape or skin of the breast are often ignored in young women, especially if they were recently pregnant or are nursing, she said. This is because pregnancy and nursing can cause many of the same conditions. A delay in diagnosis could have serious consequences, Warner cautioned.
Even when older and younger women were matched stage by stage, younger women do much worse. “We want to figure out why,” she said.
Young women diagnosed with breast cancer who join the Pynk program have a first meeting with a nurse and the program co-ordinator. The women are offered support, comfort and information, and then are referred to a surgeon or oncologist. “We can fast-track them,” Warner said.
The nurse guides the women through the cancer-treatment system, explaining what is happening, sending them to whatever specialists are best for their particular situation, co-ordinating treatments and hooking them up to support groups.
For young women, fertility can be a major concern. Has she had any children yet? Is her family complete? Will the treatment cause infertility? If she needs surgery, will she still be attractive to her spouse? These are some of their concerns.
The issue is complicated if a woman carries the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, a mutation primarily found in Ashkenazi Jewish women, that makes her more prone to breast and ovarian cancer, Warner pointed out.
Weinroth follows up with the women in the program. The program also offers information for the patient’s family, as well as access to support groups.
Pynk is supported through fundraising and donations.
For more information, visit the Sunnybrook website, www.sunnybrook.ca, or call the program co-ordinator at 416-480-5000, ext. 1059.