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Breast cancer survivor walks down the aisle

March 15, 2012
Young adult cancer patient Binh Phan

Binh Phan celebrated the wedding of her dreams and now the 25-year-old and her husband are buying their first home. Confident that she has beaten back an aggressive breast cancer tumor that nearly claimed her life four years earlier, she now is contemplating college and a family.

In the summer of 2008, Phan, then 22, had lost most of her glossy black hair to chemotherapy for invasive ductal carcinoma, a rare disease in young women, especially one who had no family history of breast cancer.

By the fall of 2009, her cancer was in remission thanks to young adult cancer specialist Dr. Leonard Sender and the team of physicians and nurses at UC Irvine's Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

"I’m really thankful Dr. Sender took on my case,” Phan says. “I’m so fortunate to be alive because of him and all the great doctors and nurses at UC Irvine Medical Center.”

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 whether the mass would disappear. By April, it had grown in size and she 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 voice on the line told her the biopsy had tested positive for cancer.

"I was a wreck, pretty much crying all the time,” she 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 UC Irvine's cancer center, one of only 41 National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the nation. By then, her tumor had doubled in size.

In consultation with Sender and UC Irvine breast surgeon Dr. Karen Todd Lane, Phan chose removal of the stage I tumor followed by chemotherapy and radiation. A lumpectomy of the stage 1 tumor was performed July 10, 2008, by UC Irvine's chief surgical oncologist, Dr. John Butler.

Sender is impressed at how Phan 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 their lives, but only one in 2,500 will be under age 30. The statistic troubles Sender, a medical oncologist who has made it his life's mission is to raise awareness about cancer in young adults—a little-studied demographic whose cancers are usually aggressive and often don't respond to treatment in 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 it will go away. We need to educate providers to know that when a young woman is brave enough to come in with a lump, she needs to be taken seriously."

In the fall of 2009, buoyed by news that she remained cancer-free, Phan resumed wedding planning. She would officially tie the knot with Dean Blanton on the second anniversary of their 2008 courthouse ceremony, which took place during a respite between her surgery and chemotherapy.

Phan had won an essay contest about breast cancer sponsored by Orange County merchants that would provide wedding flowers, hair styling, photography and limousine service. After hearing Phan's story, Emily Martinez, manager of Ferndale’s Bridal in Orange, donated a wedding gown in memory of a childhood friend who died of pancreatic cancer at age 27.

"I want Binh to celebrate her life, and for her family to celebrate her survival," Martinez said, as Phan glided among a sea of white satin and silk, her short black pigtails dipping from sight as she studied the intricately embroidered gowns crowding the salon.

Phan and Blanton exchanged vows on Aug. 28, 2010, at a San Pedro hotel, this time with her Vietnam-born parents and more than 100 family and friends in attendance. On their honeymoon in Hawaii, Binh was confident enough in her appearance that she wore a bathing suit. “My scars were already blending in with my skin tone,” she recalls. “I felt totally normal. It was like a dream come true.”

Phan continues to see Sender every three months and Lane every six months. She’ll keep taking the anti-cancer drug tamoxifen for three more years. The couple soon will move into their own home in Long Beach. Phan just got a passport to take her first trip out of the United States, to a friend’s wedding in Canada this spring. She plans to begin community college later in 2012.

"Emotionally, I'm much stronger,” Phan says. “Surviving this makes me think I can do just about anything."