It’s a well-known fact that breast cancer risk—like many other diseases—surges with age. Until 25, a woman’s likelihood of getting it is close to none. At 30, your risk is .44 percent—or one in 227 women. By 40, that likelihood more than triples to 1.47 percent, or one in 68 women. Still seem pretty low? Fair enough, but after that, it increases terrifyingly fast. Here’s a less abstract number: About 246,660 women get breast cancer in the U.S. per year. Of those, 40,450 women will die as a result.
I spoke with a woman who knows firsthand how irrelevant numbers can feel when you’re a statistical outlier. Lauren Smolinski, a lingerie buyer based in Westfield, NJ, was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer at age 33. She was 31 weeks pregnant at the time. (One of the ironies of her case: Women who give birth to their first child at 35 or younger tend to get a protective benefit from pregnancy.)
“I was watching TV one night and found a large lump in my left breast,” says Smolinski. “I showed it to my gynecologist at my weekly prenatal appointment and she blew it off, saying it was probably just my milk ducts growing in. I was persistent and asked her if I could get it checked out with a breast sonogram. Sure enough, I had a large tumor. The biopsy came back malignant and the diagnosis was Stage II breast cancer.”
Lesson one: Never, ever ignore a gut instinct when it comes to your health. Your body possesses wisdom beyond all medical tests. In Smolinski’s case, being in touch with pregnancy-related changes probably helped. “You need to perform self-breast exams and be your own advocate—especially if you’re too young for yearly mammograms, like I was,” she says. “I would never have thought that at 33 years and pregnant I’d find a breast tumor. And clearly, neither did my doctor, an expert in women’s health. If I hadn’t been persistent and insisted the lump be checked out, my story could have been very different.”
And yes, Smolinski, who’s now 37, ended up with a happy ending—but not without putting up a long, exhausting fight, including 16 chemotherapy sessions, a lumpectomy, and 30 radiation treatments. “I did it all while pregnant and then with a newborn at home,” says Smolinski. “My best friend flew across country to take care of my son, Tyler, for my second round of chemo and started a meal train for my family. My cousin, Jennifer, was like my guardian angel, taking care of me after chemo treatments and helping with Tyler, her godson. She cooked, cleaned, and made me laugh and cry when I needed to let everything out. I couldn’t have gotten through it without my ‘village’ of friends and family.”
Lesson two: Don’t take anything for granted, says Smolinski. Even the little things. “I was surprised by how emotional I was about losing my hair,” she says. “I didn’t think that something so seemingly superficial would make me so upset. It was physically painful, and in the end I had my husband take it all off with clippers. It was a very emotional and bonding moment between us.”
After all that, Smolinski has proudly been in remission for more than three years. “I look at Tyler every day and think, Did this little guy really go through all of this with me and come out as strong as an ox?” she says. “The doctors didn’t know if I could have any more kids after my treatments, but I didn’t want cancer to dictate my choices.” She gave birth to a daughter, Camryn, eight months ago. “I look at both of my children and know that I’m truly blessed. I enjoy every day of my life and know that I can do ANYTHING after beating cancer.”
Smolinski believes she came out of the experience a better person, appreciating life and living it to its fullest. Her positivity is admirable, but many women aren’t as lucky. Celebrating the silver linings of cancer is a luxury, in its own sad way. But by being aware that breast cancer isn’t out of the question even at a young age, by doing what Smolinski did and checking ourselves and advocating for ourselves, young women up their chances of having an ending as happy has hers if, God forbid, the unlikely ever does happen.