Young survivor helps others "navigate a journey none of us asked to take"

Sarah Atwell, survivor and ACS volunteer

Roughly 1 in 8 women in this country will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Besides being female, increasing age is the most important risk factor for breast cancer. But it can and does strike young women.

Sarah Atwell is one of those young women. “I was diagnosed at the age of 26 with Stage II breast cancer. Within a month I underwent a lumpectomy and I credit my wonderful doctors at Middlesex Hospital who never dismissed my symptoms because I was too young,” she says. After undergoing more tests, she had a mastectomy with immediate reconstruction and underwent genetic testing.

One of the ways she coped with her diagnosis was to research the disease as much as possible, and the American Cancer Society provided the most trusted, up-to-date information.

Eight days after her first round of chemo, she began losing her hair. To help with the hair loss and skin changes brought on by her treatment, she attended a Society-sponsored  “Look Good . . .Feel Better” class at the hospital.

Sarah finished her chemotherapy on her 27th birthday.  “Between the chemotherapy and Tamoxifen, a drug that I will be taking for four more years to help prevent the cancer from returning, my chance of recurrence is at 9 per cent. I was amazed to learn that the Society played a role in the research breakthroughs that are helping me get well,” she says. The Society has had a hand in virtually every breast cancer breakthrough, from the development of mammography to the discovery of the breast cancer genes and use of tamoxifen to reduce risk of second or first breast cancer. And, 1 in every 2 women newly diagnosed with breast cancer reaches out to the American Cancer Society for help and support.

Shortly after treatment Sarah learned about another American Cancer Society  program called Reach to Recovery, where breast cancer survivors are paired with newly diagnosed women to provide support, understanding, and first-hand knowledge.  “I knew I wanted to volunteer in this way because I wanted to turn fear and anxiety to information and experience.  I knew I wanted to help others, just like so many others helped me,” says Sarah.

“On my 28th birthday, I was not hooked up to chemo like the previous year. I was in a room full of other survivors at the American Cancer Society’s office in Rocky Hill, CT, learning how to help other women who were going through what we had gone through.”

Now a nursing student, Sarah takes some time each spring to celebrate, remember, and fight back by participating in the Relay For Life of Middletown, CT, with her family.  Friends come from out of state to join her and together they have a lot to smile about.

“I’m proud to be a survivor, and I’m proud to be a volunteer for the American Cancer Society. It’s a wonderful way to help others navigate this journey that none of us ever asked to take.”

PHOTO:   Sarah Atwell, center, and friends at the Relay For Life of Middletown, CT.