Imagine you're just starting your life. Maybe you're graduating from college, going to graduate school, starting your first real job, or living on your own for the first time. You think there will always be time for everything you want to experience. This is how Becky Hall lived — with an eye toward the future — until she was diagnosed with breast cancer at 25. While breast cancer is commonly thought to affect women over 40, more women are being diagnosed younger, though research has not indicated a definitive reason why breast cancer is increasing in women ages 25-39, according to a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Additionally, the Young Survival Coalition reported that more than 250,000 women living in the United States today were diagnosed with breast cancer before they turned 40. Additionally, because there are no effective screening methods for women under 40, breast cancer in younger women tends to be diagnosed in its later stages, be more aggressive, have a higher mortality rate, and a higher risk of metastatic recurrence, which is return of breast cancer in areas beyond the breast.
This is what happened to Hall, who has co-written the forthcoming short film bare with award-winning filmmaker Kerith Lemon. The film, which will be released Oct. 23, is based on Hall's experiences, and seeks to explore the emotions and challenges of young women diagnosed with breast cancer by following the journey of a character named Ellie, played by Aurora Perrineau from Passengers and ABC’s Chasing Life. Hall shared her story about being diagnosed with breast cancer at 25 with Bustle, and detailed how her illness gave her a new perspective on what's really important.
A Breast Cancer Diagnosis At 25
In 2010, Hall was a 25-year-old student in veterinary school at UC Davis when, one day after a run, she felt a golf-ball sized lump in her breast while she was performing her usual post-workout stretching routine. "I had done the exact same stretch the day before — daily for years, actually — and felt nothing. After some palpating, I quickly realized that I had a sizable lump in my right breast," Hall tells Bustle. "I went to the student health center that Monday, where the nurse assured me that 25 year olds don’t get breast cancer, especially without any family history."
Despite the low risk for breast cancer in a woman Hall's age, she was sent for a mammogram, which showed two masses in her breast and enlarged lymph nodes in her armpit. "They performed a biopsy right then and there, and by the next Monday, I was a stage 3 breast cancer patient."
Hall says that's when her life changed. Everything from that point forward would be defined by her life before she received her diagnoses, and by what happened after. "When I was sitting in the exam room looking at a fax from the pathology department that said 'Urgent, Invasive Ductal Carcinoma' underneath my name, I couldn’t process the severity of the situation. I wasn’t ready to accept that my life was going to drastically change, that I could never go back to the moment before being handed that piece of paper, that I might die."
After she had some time to process her diagnosis, Hall's thoughts shifted from worrying about whether or not she would be able to finish school to the reality that she would lose her hair, and potentially her breasts. "One day my childhood friends came over to shave my head, and for the first time I let myself feel it all. I cried; they consoled me; I told them that I was scared I was going to die. They sat with me in the fire and then helped me crawl out," Hall says.
"Then we shaved my head, and I felt so empowered, so ready to take it all on. The fears never went away, but I learned how to face them. Learning that I needed to feel those dark emotions — and have them heard — and how much that in and of itself allowed me to then face my fears is an important aspect of the experience that I hope to convey through our film. I hope [it] might help others in similar situations (or anyone who is facing a scary thing)."
Finding Strength To Fight
For Hall, shaving her head was an important part of accepting her diagnosis and moving forward. "I was terrified to shave my head, but I was even more scared to watch it fall out. I didn’t tell anyone that I was thinking of shaving it before chemo, because I was scared that I would chicken out and then I’d have to admit that I didn’t have the guts to go through with it," she says. "So I secretly brought my horse clippers home from the barn, invited my friends over, and just asked them to shave it."
Shaving her head was symbolic of so much more than just losing her hair. It meant that she would have to look in the mirror every day and remember that she was a cancer patient. "That scared me," Hall admits. "But, I was also being told about all these awful things that I would have to endure over the next year, and I just thought to myself, if I can’t do this, how am I going to get through all that?"
Halls says that she needed to prove to herself that she had the strength to do scary things — that she could choose to face her fears instead of waiting for the storm to hit. "Shaving my head made me realize that I was far stronger and more capable of getting through all that was to come than I realized. When it was done, I looked in the mirror and felt like such a badass," she says. "I felt like someone who can be scared of something, and do it anyway. I felt ready to walk through the storm on my own terms. I truly hope that we did this element justice in the film, and believe that we have. It was one of the primary drivers of wanting to tell this story. I wanted to help others going through tough times by showing them that they aren’t alone, that it’s OK to be scared, that they can survive and overcome anyway."
While people with a family history of breast cancer, or those who test positive for the BRCA 1 or 2 gene, getting mammograms before age 40 makes sense. But Hall had zero family history, and she tested negative for gene mutations. Generally, women in their 20s do not get mammograms, and for Hall, like most women in their 20s, breast cancer wasn't something that was even on her radar.
"We have no idea why I got it. I am a little embarrassed to admit that I was not all that informed about breast cancer before being diagnosed," Hall says. "I knew it existed, knew it was an issue, knew that October was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but beyond that, I didn’t think it was something I needed to worry about. I thought it was a disease for much older women."
The Bare Truth About Stage 4 Breast Cancer
In making bare, Hall says she wanted to explore the importance of friendship for young women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer because that narrative doesn't always get told. "Social support is such an integral component of going through an experience like this, particularly as a young woman," Hall explains.
"I needed to talk with my friends about how scared I was to date post cancer, to lose my hair, to have a mastectomy — things that of course my family would have done their best with, but ultimately I needed my friends who were my age in that moment," she says. "That is a tall order. Many people in their 20s or 30s haven’t had enough life experience to know how to cope with a friend receiving a diagnosis like this, and unfortunately they sometimes run away from it, leaving the patient feeling abandoned. We wanted to show through the film what a difference supportive friends can make to the patient, that sometimes all it takes is showing up, and that no one expects everyone to say the 'right thing' all the time. Just be there."
Ultimately, Hall's rigorous treatments made staying in school impossible. She moved from Davis, Calif., back to Santa Cruz to live with her parents, who accompanied her to doctor's appointments, and took care of her when she couldn't take care of herself. She says she was lonely in Santa Cruz without her network of college friends, and because she is fiercely independent, she sometimes resisted her parents' help. "I’m grateful that we navigated through that mess and that they forgave me when I wasn’t the most gracious patient, because less than three years later I was diagnosed [as] stage 4, and I have continued to need their help and support more than I can say."
Hall, who refers to herself as a very private person, initially only revealed her stage 4 diagnosis to close friends and family. She began writing about her experiences with breast cancer, and posted a story about shaving her head online. "Kerith Lemon, who I have known since childhood, saw it and proposed turning it into a short film. We then worked on the script together. The whole process of making this film and being public about my experiences with cancer has been so freeing," she says. "It’s the first time that I have really had the courage to share my story beyond my immediate circle of family and friends. It has made me understand that opening up is not this scary thing to shy away from — it is a powerful glue that binds people and makes us all feel less alone."
Additionally, making the film gave Hall, who lives in Santa Cruz with her husband and dog, renewed purpose. "[It] made me remember that I am so much more than a woman with cancer. I am a woman with a story to share, and thanks to this film I feel empowered to get out there and share it with whoever will listen — and I do, both in person, online, and on my blog, Cancer, You Can Suck It. Ultimately, I hope this film creates some awareness and funding for MBC — and I can’t think of anything more empowering than knowing that I had a hand in that."
Pursuing Passion & Purpose
Seven years after her initial diagnosis, Hall is still in treatment, and with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer that she'll be in treatment for the rest of her life. In 2014, the cancer spread to her bones and lymph nodes. After rigorous treatment she tested as NED (no evidence of disease), but in 2016 the cancer had re-emerged, this time in her brain. She had an emergency craniotomy and brain radiation, but has recently gotten news that the cancer in her bones may be back. Navigating stage 4 cancer is a never ending roller coaster of complex emotions, and physically and mentally taxing treatments to try to buy more time.
Hall is passionate about raising awareness about this type of cancer because, she says, less than 7 percent of money raised for breast cancer research goes toward stage 4 research, when the reality is that 30 percent of those diagnosed with early stage breast cancer will progress to stage 4. Because of this, people diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer have a life expectancy of between two and three years.
"That makes no sense. This allocation of funds makes us feel like we are considered lost causes, that our lives are not worth saving, that we do not matter," Hall says. "We do matter. If more resources and funding were dedicated to stage 4, we would save lives. Non-profits like METAvivor do an enormous amount to try to address these issues, and I wish people would pay more attention to them. METAvivor dedicates 100 percent of all donations and fundraising proceeds to stage 4 metastatic research."
She also wants people to know what it's like to live with stage 4 cancer. "I want people to understand the realities of the disease — that those of us who are stage 4 are in constant treatment, even when the cancer is knocked back — and that means that even when we look well and have hair, we are likely battling daily brutal side effects; that we are constantly having to switch up therapies in an attempt to outsmart the cancer; that we live scan to scan without any kind of confidence in a future; that at some point we run out of options."
She stresses the importance of holding onto family and friends and making personal relationships a priority in your life right now, something she only realized after her diagnosis. She also urges young women to perform regular breast self exams, and if they find something, to go to a doctor right away so the cancer can be caught early. While Hall felt like she was alone when she was first diagnosed, she now knows that a lot of young women are also battling cancer.
"I wish I had known that when I felt so alone, I wasn’t. There are unfortunately so many young women going through breast cancer, and once I figured out how to connect with them (primarily via Facebook), it was a game changer," she says. "More than anything, I wish I had known that I would get through everything that was thrown at me, and I would still figure out how to live a life that I love — a life filled with love, joy, beauty—and yes, a lot of pain and tears as well. But that’s the true, honest human experience. It’s not all sunshine and happiness, and that’s OK."