MELBOURNE, Fla. — When Lindsay Farlow walked into the sterile facility, the cancer patients undergoing treatment thought she was there on business.
“When I went into the chemo room, they literally thought that I was a pharmaceutical sales rep,” Farlow, 33, recalled.
Maybe that's not surprising, considering the American Cancer Society reports that less than 5% of breast cancers occur in women under 40.
Then 32, Farlow didn't fit the mold. But she's learning to embrace it.
“I’m so rare, I have to be an advocate for others,” the Melbourne, Fla., woman said.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign to increase knowledge and earlier detection, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
Now in remission, Farlow feels passionately about connecting with others like her — young women who have no family history of the disease and never imagined they’d be smacked with such a devastating diagnosis in their 20s and 30s.
“I want to be an advocate for somebody going through this, not look at it as, ‘Why me?’ and be so down on the situation,” she said.
According to the nonprofit breastcancer.org, about 1 in 8 U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer during her lifetime. Of all cancer deaths, those of the breast lead for women ages 20 to 59, the Susan G. Komen Foundation reports. Not the norm in younger women, genetics can sometimes kick up the risk, Komen.org notes.
That wasn’t the case with Farlow, who relocated to Jensen Beach, Fla., three years ago for an opportunity in retail management.
It was after a workout last October that she found a lump while taking off her sports bra.
“I didn’t say anything to anybody," Farlow recalled. "I thought I pulled a muscle because I was working out my arms.”
The next day, she mentioned it to her mom and then-boyfriend, who both told her to get it checked.
Farlow went for a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy. Her mom and boyfriend came with her for the results. The three planned to hit their favorite bar for a celebratory drink afterward.
It became a consolation drink instead.
Farlow had Stage 2 HER2-positive (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2) breast cancer. The Mayo Clinic's website explains HER2-positive is a protein that fuels cancer cells.
“I heard ‘cancer’ and ‘chemo,’ and I just kind of went into shock,” Farlow said. “Nothing made sense and I just kind of sat there for a second, and then, just, bawling tears.”
Her mom was stunned, too.
"We didn’t know what to do, what to say, what to think, because we didn’t know anything about it,” said Terry Farlow. “We didn’t prepare (ourselves) for cancer. We were going shopping, we were going to lunch in downtown Stuart. We didn’t plan on going there to find this out.”
A defining moment
While Farlow insists on being as independent as possible, her friends, family and colleagues have been incredibly supportive. The relationship she was in at diagnosis ended, but Farlow isn’t miffed. She’s of the mindset that things happen for a reason.
Farlow's illness made her friends aware that breast cancer doesn’t discriminate.
“I probably never would have done any kind of check either,” said Maria Phelan, 32, Farlow's best friend since seventh grade. "I think we’re just so young, we don’t think about it.”
Farlow’s mom has been there for everything.
“I had to stay positive and be strong for her,” Terry Farlow said. “I would try not to cry in front of her. I didn’t want her to see me be weak, because as a mother, you’re supposed to be strong."
Lindsay Farlow said it’s strange how some people have shifted their behavior.
“No one knows the right thing to say when they find out you’ve been diagnosed,” Farlow said. “But the people closest to me never treated me like I was a cancer patient. I’m still the same person. But there are some people who treated me like, ‘Oh, she has cancer.’ ”
Farlow began a new relationship during her treatment. She said her current boyfriend has been understanding and encouraging through her illness, which cost her her hair.
Farlow underwent six sessions of chemotherapy, a year of targeted therapy with the drug Herceptin and a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction.
By her third treatment, an MRI showed the tumor had shrunk by 50%, she said. After her May surgery, pathology showed no signs of cancer.
The toughest part has been adjusting post-surgery, such as the expanders that made way for her implants. She describes the time in between to having two hard basketballs attached to her chest 24/7. She was given the option to salvage her eggs but declined since hormonal therapy is part of the deal — a no-go for her, given her estrogen-driven cancer.
Intertwined are injections to stall ovulation.
“It stinks that way,” Farlow said of the menopausal-like side effects. “I don’t have any sex drive. Those things have affected me more — hot flashes — than thinking I can’t have kids.”
Things are slowly returning to normal for Farlow.
She's back at work after six months’ medical leave. She’s found comfort and friends through the nonprofit Breast Friends, She does yoga with other patients and survivors. She’s befriended people who need help with their own paths back to better health and embraced her own.
Support has been critical. Last June, Farlow had a "33 and Cancer Free” party — her first birthday bash in years. And she hopes to help others, even if it's just by being a shoulder to cry on.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Farlow said. “There are positive experiences. Just look towards the good and (do) not dwell on the bad. ...This is a wakeup call. Life is precious.”
Follow Sara Paulson on Twitter: @bysarapaulson