NEW PALESTINE — Breast cancer knows no age. Sarah Stockton knows that now.
Stockton, 22, of New Palestine, was in her senior year at Ball State University when she was diagnosed with the disease; she was 21. Experts said it’s rare for breast cancer to strike someone so young, but it can happen. And Stockton — who underwent a double mastectomy and is now cancer-free — is using her experience to educate her peers.
Stockton, a 2011 New Palestine High School graduate, was diagnosed with breast cancer after she went to the doctors last fall with pain in her breasts. Doctors at first didn’t think someone her age would have the disease, but the tests that came back positive suggested otherwise.
There’s no doubt Stockton’s is a rare case. About 80 percent of breast cancers occur in women older than 50, and nearly half of patients are 50 to 69, according to breastcancer.org. Breast cancer in women younger than 30 represents less than 1 percent of cases, said Dr. Linda Han, director of breast surgical oncology at the IU Health Simon Cancer Center.
Stockton said the diagnosis came out of the blue and threw her for a loop. But she fought — and hard. From November to March, Stockton received chemotherapy. In April, she opted to undergo a bilateral mastectomy, her best chance of preventing a recurrence.
Stockton graduated from college in July with degrees in political science and communications and is moving on with her life. Her outlook on the challenges ahead is completely different, having already won the biggest battle she might ever face.
“I have a lot of perspective in my life now,” Stockton said. “It does give me a lot of confidence to carry on and achieve a lot.”
Those achievements include serving as an advocate for patients of the disease and telling her story to raise awareness.
‘Can happen with anyone’
Last week, Stockton took part as an honorary speaker at the Indianapolis Colts Pinking of the Canal event, which celebrates October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.“I was so grateful to be able to share that, so it can really resonate with people that it can happen with anyone,” Stockton said.
She also was asked to join other survivors who carried a pink breast cancer ribbon onto the football field at Lucas Oil Stadium prior to the Colts recent game against Jacksonville.
The events were designed to rally support for those who have beaten or are still battling breast cancer. They also gave Stockton a chance to meet others who have shared her experience.
Of course, she is in many cases decades younger than they are.
“I don’t meet a lot of people who are remotely close to my age who have gone through this,” Stockton said. “But it was so neat to see a variety of survivors.”
She recently finished radiation treatments, and while she is still under a doctor’s care, she says she’s doing well. She is working as an intern in Indianapolis for the Indiana House Republican Campaign Committee and is making plans to attend graduate school.
While it would have been easy to get down when she was diagnosed, Stockton made a promise to herself: She would become proactive and have a positive outlook, no matter the direction the disease took her.
Her faith, family and team of doctors on her case pulled her through, she said.
“The number of people we had praying was extraordinary,” Stockton said. “I just think that was huge.”
Watch for symptoms
Stockton said she was never alone through the treatment process and that the support from her parents, David and Lily Stockton, as well as her sister and boyfriend were paramount in helping her survive.It also showed the family something about Stockton.“The strength in her character, we always thought it was good, but we found it was even better than we thought,” her father said.
While the odds of someone so young getting breast cancer are rare, experts say women should always be on the outlook for symptoms that might suggest something is wrong — as well as be aware of any family history of the disease.
Stockton’s paternal grandmother had breast cancer when she was in her 30s. Like Stockton, she, too survived, and is alive and well today.
Dr. Doug Schwartzentruber, medical director of Indiana University Health Cancer Center, where Stockton battled the disease, said Stockton’s case is testament to the fact cancer knows no boundaries.
“There are some cancers that do appear early in life, regardless of age,” Schwartzentruber said.
But there is good news, too. The number of survivors — of all ages — is growing, Schwartzentruber said.
Doctors say there are more than 14 million cancer survivors in the United States, and it is great to have Stockton among them.
Stockton said she likes to joke with family and friends that no matter what the future holds, she can handle it after all she’s been through at such a young age.
“Whenever I have anything to complain about I just say, ‘But it is nothing like last year,’” she said.
Who: Sarah Stockton, New Palestine, breast cancer survivor
Diagnosed with breast cancer at age 21 during her senior year at Ball State University
Received treatment at the IU Health Simon Cancer Center from Nov. 2014 to March 2015. Received chemotherapy and in April had a bilateral mastectomy. She recently finished radiation and is getting long-term treatment, but she is doing well and working as an intern in Indianapolis.