A cancer diagnosis is overwhelming at any age. But Britta Knight was just 33 when she found out she had stage 4 breast cancer in December 2015.
“It started with pain in my left breast that definitely didn’t feel right. It felt like someone was sticking pins and needles in my breast,” says Britta, who is being treated by Dr. Reema Batra, a Sharp Grossmont-affiliated medical oncologist.
“We called our family doctor and she got me in right away. She felt a lump deep inside my breast, and that same afternoon I saw a general surgeon for a biopsy,” she says.
At the time, Britta didn’t know her breast cancer was metastatic, meaning it had already spread to other parts of her body. But despite her serious diagnosis, she decided not to let her cancer get the best of her. Instead, she’s laser-focused on life and doing the things she loves.
She’s also grateful for being referred to Dr. Batra and the way she shared her diagnosis. “Initially, we didn’t know it was metastatic. Dr. Batra sat down with us and explained what that meant. But she said not to look at it as a death sentence, because there are now many scientific advancements and different types of treatment we can try. And that changed my perspective,” says Britta.
Breast cancer and age
Breast cancer is rare in younger women. About 1 in 8 women in the U.S. will develop breast cancer and the median age is 62.
“Breast cancer can happen at any age, but less than 10% of women are diagnosed in their 30s,” says Dr. Batra. “In those instances, the disease is more likely late-stage and tends to be more aggressive.”
Mammography guidelines don’t recommend regular mammogram screenings until after age 40, so the disease is not often caught in younger women. These women also have denser breast tissue, which makes it tougher to detect a tumor on a mammogram. Women should talk with their doctor about their personal risk factors and routine screening that’s right for them.
Britta’s clinical trial and how it’s helping
The five-year survival rate for stage 4 breast cancer patients is 22%, but there are long-time survivors. Age, general health, hormone receptors on cells, areas of the body the cancer has spread to, and attitude and outlook affect that figure.
In addition, as newer research and promising treatments are discovered, some patients are beating the odds thanks to clinical trials. In fact, all therapies and treatments we rely on today were previously tested in clinical trials.
Britta began her clinical trial in March 2018. To qualify, she had to meet specific criteria and exhaust other existing standard of care therapies.
“Dr. Batra was my ally. She sat down with the tumor board and told them about me, and that’s how I got started,” she says.
Andrew Berrier, advanced clinical trials specialist at Sharp Grossmont says, “Many patients like the idea that there may be a very effective treatment for their condition through medication not fully approved by the FDA, although they’ve gone through enough of a research process to know it could potentially work.”
He explains, “Some patients have very rare cancers, while others may have exhausted standard of care options. Some just donate blood in the hopes that their DNA or circulating tumor cells will help create better cancer therapies for the future.”
In Britta’s case, experimental medication has proven to be very effective with very few side effects, and she’s now in remission. Her scans have been stable with no detectable metastatic disease and she’s maintaining a high quality of life.
Berrier says, “She goes to work and school. She comes to her chemotherapy and often makes her infusion chair her working office. She’s not letting her cancer limit her life. She is an inspiration.”
No couch potatoes, and the power of support
“I have my good days and my bad days, but I have to look at it optimistically. It’s either that or I sit around and become a couch potato,” Britta says.
But Britta is no couch potato. In fact, the pink ribbon tattooed on her right wrist has Japanese symbols that translate to “fighter.”
She has a degree from San Diego State University and challenged herself to go back to school to earn a paralegal degree from Cuyamaca College. She works for a criminal attorney and splits her time working from home and the office. When chemo treatments fall on a workday, she brings her laptop and works during her therapy.
After treatments, she loves to attend the Art and Chat Cancer Support Group, where other patients with cancer come together to socialize, relax, draw, color and learn art techniques. “Everyone goes around and introduces themselves. The first two times I went it was emotional for me,” she says.
But thanks to the outpouring of support Britta received from other patients, it’s now her safe place to share and work through her feelings and challenges, as well as to laugh and learn from others facing similar situations.
Her real passion, however, is singing. “I grew up playing the piano, and I’ve always found joy in music — it just makes me happy,” she says.
After getting an email from Cuyamaca College about singing auditions for their graduation ceremony, she took a chance, auditioned and had the honor of being selected to sing the National Anthem. Britta also participates in the Santee Choir and San Diego Festival Choir, among others.
Since her diagnosis, Britta’s main source of strength comes from her large, loving family, and she’s grateful for their unconditional love and support. She’s close to her parents, brother and three sisters, and talks fondly about fun camping adventures with the rest of the family — cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and others.
“My dad tries to come with me to my treatments, and when I lost my hair from chemo, he shaved his head too,” Britta says.
“I like being independent and doing things for myself, but from the beginning my family said they were going to get me back on my feet and we’d get through this together. I have up days and down days, and during those down days, they pray for me, come with me to consults with Dr. Batra, bring me food, and check in on me. Their help means everything to me.”
For the news media: To talk with Dr. Reema Batra about breast cancer for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.