Young women: Breast cancer doesn’t care how old you are

Bethany Reed Sutherland and students

FIU Psychology Assistant Professor Bethany Reeb Sutherland was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, at the age of 38. By 2019, the cancer had spread to her liver — she had stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. On Nov. 14, 2020, the mother of two young boys, wife, scientist, educator and mentor passed away. During her breast cancer journey, Bethany continued research on social and emotional behaviors in children, continued mentoring her students and in 2017, decided to share her personal insights of a disease that afflicts one out of every eight women in the United States. In honor of Bethany Reeb Sutherland, we are republishing her op-ed this year during Breast Cancer Awareness Month with the hope that her words will help others facing breast cancer.

By Bethany Reeb Sutherland
First published October 2017

One year ago, I was 37, enjoying a successful career as an assistant professor of psychology at a large research university and celebrating the birth of my second child. Life was playing out as I had always imagined. Two weeks later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Stage 3 breast cancer.

How did I not notice? I was seeing my obstetrician regularly and with all the tests that I went through, there was no mention of cancer. I certainly didn’t feel like I had cancer. How did I go from healthy mom to cancer patient so fast? It’s simple. I ignored everything I know as a researcher and listened to my instincts. I am scientific proof that cancer does not care about our statistics. It does not follow any rules. I challenge all of us to rethink how we approach this unpredictable disease.

It all started a few weeks before I gave birth. I noticed something wasn’t quite right with one of my breasts. This was easy to dismiss because breasts change during pregnancy. When my son had trouble breastfeeding from that same breast, cancer wasn’t a thought. But when my nipple inverted and the skin dimpled, I became concerned. My doctor assured me that cancer was not likely. Breast changes are normal after having a baby, he reminded me. I had no family history of breast cancer. I felt good. I am a young woman. Less than 5 percent of diagnosed cases are in women in my age group. However, he offered a prescription for a mammogram and ultrasound if I wanted it. I took it. In less than a week, I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. Sometimes I reflect back on this moment and wonder how long it would have been before my cancer was detected if I went along with my doctor’s intuition instead of my own.

My story is not unique. Breast cancer in young women can often go unnoticed or dismissed by doctors because it is so rare. It can be masked by normal changes that occur in the breast during menstruation and pregnancy. Young women have dense breast tissue, which inhibits routine mammograms from being a useful screening tool. This can lead to many young women being diagnoses with breast cancer at more advanced stages and potentially lead to a premature death. With the growing numbers of young women being diagnosed with breast cancer, it is time we do something about this.

Women: listen to your gut. Look at your breasts, feel your breasts, talk to your doctor about your breasts. Don’t be afraid to ask for additional tests. Be sure to follow through with those tests even if your doctor doesn’t seem worried. I am not a medical doctor or cancer expert, but I am a scientist. I have been trained to think critically and rationally and follow what science tells us. In my case, the science said that it was extremely unlikely that I would have breast cancer. However, when it came to my health, I put all rational thoughts aside and followed my gut.

Doctors: listen to your patients. You are our first line of defense in confronting this disease. Although it may be rare, no one is too young for cancer. We trust you to help us make decisions about follow-up tests. Please do not dismiss our gut instincts as irrational fears. Please encourage us to get tested even though you may think the changes in our breast are nothing to worry about.

Cancer researchers: we need better and more cost-effective screening tools for detecting breast cancer in young women. Although the mammogram has been extremely effective for older women, it is not effective for us. Ultrasound and MRI are better, but they are expensive and insurance will not cover them unless symptoms are present. If symptoms are present, we’re likely talking about advanced stage cancer. Given that early detection is a key factor to defeating breast cancer, it’s time we have effective screening tools for women of all ages.

Foundations and granting agencies: we need more funding for breast cancer research in young women. We remain drastically under-represented in scientific studies. Knowing more about how breast cancer differs in young women and how it uniquely affects our lives — fertility issues, early menopause, caring for young children — can lead to a better treatment and prevention in young women. It can also help them feel less marginalized.

There are breast cancer victims of all ages, and survivors of all ages. I am grateful to be counted among the survivors. The National Breast Cancer Coalition has proposed a deadline to end breast cancer by 2020. But this cannot be achieved without thinking of all women — old, middle-aged and young.

About Bethany Reeb Sutherland:

To honor her memory, FIU established the Bethany Sutherland Psychology Graduate Student Hardship Fund. Gifts to this fund will help graduate students who experience unexpected hardships including illnesses, injury or other unforeseen emergencies that could cause financial hardships and otherwise disrupt their academic pursuits.

Bethany Reeb Sutherland was an associate professor of psychology and affiliate faculty member in the Center for Children and Families. Bethany earned her Ph.D. in Behavioral Neuroscience from the University of New Mexico in 2006 and completed postdoctoral training at the University of Maryland, College Park’s world-renowned Department of Human Development. She joined FIU in 2012 as director of the Brain and Behavioral Development Lab. Bethany’s research focused on the relations between early learning and social behaviors from infancy through childhood. Bethany published more than 45 articles on these topics in leading developmental and child clinical psychology journals; many were published with FIU doctoral students she mentored. She was associate editor of the journal Minda, Brain, and Education, sole editor of a special issue of Infant Behavior and Development, and the principal investigator or co-principal investigator on numerous NIH grants totaling more than $10 million.

She became an advocate for cancer research as co-vice president of the local board of the Susan G. Komen Foundation Miami/Fort Lauderdale Affiliate. While navigating cancer treatments, she received the 2017 Early Career Impact Award from the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences for her major contributions to advancing the sciences of mind, brain and bahavior. She received the College of Arts, Sciences & Education Faculty Award for Excellence in Research. Also in 2017, Bethany received the Provost Award for Outstanding Mentorship of Graduate Students — nearly one year since her original cancer diagnosis. Her students now carry on her work of uncovering the mysteries about how social and emotional behaviors develop in children.

She is survived by her husband Mathew T. Sutherland, FIU associate professor of psychology, their sons Eli and Jonah, her mother, three sisters and brother.