Binh Phan glided into a sea of white silk and satin, her black pigtails dipping from sight occasionally as she blissfully examined the embroidered gowns crowding the bridal salon.
A year earlier, Phan had lost most of her glossy black hair to chemotherapy for invasive ductal carcinoma, a rare disease in young women, especially those with no family history of breast cancer. Now 23, she’s in remission and planning the wedding she hardly dared dream of, thanks to oncologist Dr. Leonard Sender and his colleagues at UC Irvine’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“Dr. Sender is such a great man,” says Phan, who lives with her Vietnam-born parents in Garden Grove. “He listens to all the questions I have and goes the extra mile to make sure I get all the care I need.”
Phan first felt a pea-sized mass in her right breast while showering in January 2008. When she went to a community clinic a few weeks later to renew a birth control prescription, she mentioned the lump. Her doctor decided to hold off on the pills to see if the growth would disappear. But by April, it was larger, and Phan was referred to another clinic for a breast exam and biopsy.
On May 30, 10 days after the biopsy, Phan was on her way to Las Vegas to celebrate friends’ birthdays when her cell phone rang. The caller said she had tested positive for cancer.
“I was a wreck, pretty much crying all the time,” Phan recalls. “It had never crossed my mind that I could have cancer. But I thought, ‘I’m young, so it’s easier for me to fight this than if I were 60 or 70.’”
She was referred to the breast health program at UCI’s Chao center, one of just 40 National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the U.S. and the only one in Orange County. By then, she figures, the tumor had doubled in size.
In consultation with Sender and UCI breast surgeon Dr. Karen Todd Lane, Phan chose removal of the stage I tumor and then chemotherapy and radiation. A lumpectomy was performed July 10 by UCI’s chief surgical oncologist, Dr. John A. Butler, and Phan completed her follow-up treatment in spring 2009.
Sender is impressed by how she has taken everything in stride. A cancer diagnosis is a blow to anyone, but for young women, breast cancer raises “tremendous issues – of body image, sexuality and fertility,” he says. “Phan simply decided, ‘This is what I need to do to get back to living,’ and then she made it happen. She always had a positive attitude and a level of serenity.”
One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in her life. Only one in 2,500 will be under age 30, but these patients are likely to have a more virulent form of the disease and a poorer prognosis. The statistic is troubling to Sender, who has made it his life’s mission to raise awareness of cancer in young adults – a little-studied demographic whose cancers are often aggressive and don’t respond to treatment the same way those in older adults and children do.
Worse, Sender says, many young women who seek help are dismissed: “They’re told they’re too young for breast cancer, that it’s probably a cyst and will go away. We need to educate healthcare providers that when a young woman is brave enough to come in with a lump, she needs to be taken seriously.”
Phan’s hair has come back as thick as ever. She remains cancer-free and is planning a formal wedding on Aug. 28, the second anniversary of her courthouse marriage to Dean Blanton – who has stayed beside her throughout the diagnosis, surgery and treatment.
This time, her parents and entire family will be at the event, which will feature hairstyling, photography, floral and limousine services that Phan won in an essay contest sponsored by Orange County merchants. She also will get the wedding dress of her dreams from Ferndales Bridal in Orange. After hearing Phan’s story, shop manager Emily Martinez decided to donate a gown in memory of a childhood friend who had died of pancreatic cancer at age 27.
“I want Binh to celebrate her life and her family to celebrate her survival,” Martinez says.
Phan hopes to study business management, help other cancer patients and, eventually, start a family. Her cancer experience has steeled her, she says: “Emotionally, I’m much stronger. Overcoming this makes me think I can do just about anything.”