One Saturday during veterinary school, Rebecca Hall, then 25 years old, was stretching when she felt a lump in her breast. It seemed to come out of nowhere, but she was freaked out enough to go to the student health center when they reopened on Monday.
The nurse there took one look at her and said, "25-year-olds don't get breast cancer, especially with no family history." Reluctantly, they sent her for a mammogram, and the nurse instructed Hall not to panic. "Of course I panicked, because that's what I do," she says. "Then it all spiraled."
Hall's mammogram showed areas of concern, and within a week she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. Hall says she's grateful to have even gotten a mammogram: "A lot of young women who go to doctors with concerns get dismissed and don't get checked for tests right away — so I'm very fortunate that I did," she says. It is uncommon for a 25-year-old with no family history to get breast cancer, but it's definitely not impossible. Each year, 70,000 men and women ages 15 to 39 are diagnosed with cancer in the U.S., and breast cancer is the most common cancer for this age group, according to the National Cancer Institute. During winter break, Hall was scheduled to start chemotherapy.
The night before Hall's first chemo session she invited her three childhood friends over and asked them to shave her head. "That day was the first time that I had really tackled any deeper emotions and started to accept that this was going to be a very big deal in my life," Hall says. So, without telling her parents, they sat on the bathroom floor and shaved her head. Her hair — and the ceremonial buzzing of it — was symbolic of so much more, Hall says. "It made me realize that I was going to have to look in the mirror and think: Oh my god. I am a cancer patient, and that means I might die. And life is maybe not going to go on for me," she says.
Hall wrote a short story about this experience, which she shared on Facebook, and another childhood friend and filmmaker, Kerith Lemon, reached out almost instantaneously. "[Hall's story] was something that we don’t show often in mainstream media," Lemon says. "A lot of cancer stories are about older women, and the ones that have been out lately that target younger demographics have been theatrical, and seem glossy to me."
Together, they made a short film called Bare, which tells the story of that night and the friendships that helped Hall while she grappled with her diagnosis. Ahead, Hall and Lemon discuss why they wanted to tell this story. (You can watch the film in its entirety below.)
Friendship is a big theme in the film. Why was it important to you to show that?
Rebecca Hall: "It's a huge piece of the film for me. Family support is enormous — and I had a ton of family support — but I was 25, and I was in college, and I was out on my own. I needed my friends, and I needed people my age. I needed to talk about the fact that I was scared of dating, and scared of looking different.
"Breast cancer at 25 is so incredibly isolating for a number of reasons, one of the biggest ones being that so few people that age have been through significant life experiences. Therefore, they haven’t necessarily developed the coping skills yet to help support someone through that experience. So, people tend to run away from it out of fear. 'I lost a number of friends,' I hear that time and time again from patients, that their social support systems pull away from them. I wanted to show how important and how vital a role friendship played — not just spouses or family, of course those are important, but we need our friends to rally around us."
"It doesn’t matter if [your friends] say the wrong thing, because everyone's going to say the wrong thing if there's no right thing to say. We just need our people, we need people who have known us since we were kids, who we can be silly with, joke with — we can talk about what other people might think are superficial concerns, like losing hair. I think that piece of it, that narrative isn’t often shared when people talk about cancer."
In the movie, there's a stark shift from you being alone in the bathroom to having support and friends. Was loneliness another theme you wanted to explore?
RH: "It was a very lonely, isolating experience for me. It was a huge lesson in learning how to reach out for support, which up until then I was not very good at. All of the sudden, I was in this place where I felt totally alone. I felt like I needed my friends more than ever, and I had to make all these phone calls that said, 'Hey, I know we haven’t talked in a couple months, but I need to let you know I have breast cancer.' And then hope that they were going to react well and be there for me.
"That was terrifying, and I didn’t necessarily always handle that the best. There definitely was a shift in real life where, when I was first diagnosed, I didn’t really tell anyone — not out of shame or anything, I just had no idea how to go about telling people this information. Telling people also made it real. So I kept really quiet about it, and then very slowly I started realizing that I needed help, and I needed my friends to know what I was going through. I needed to give them the opportunity to be there for me.
"They dropped everything, drove down to see me. It was a big lesson for me in learning that, if you give people the opportunity to be there for you, they will often show up. But I had to be open enough to do that first."
Kerith Lemon: "From a filmmaking perspective, that was something that I wanted to make clear. We wanted to make it approachable to anyone who would watch, whether they're supporting someone else going through the experience, or themselves going through it.
"As an outsider, I could only imagine from the things Becky talked about, to understand a little bit of that loneliness. Even though you might be surrounded by well-meaning people, like doctors and others. It's truly the people that know you best that you can feel safe with. Vulnerability in making the film, visually was something I worked really hard to achieve."
What was the best thing that you remember your friends doing around this time?
RH: "When I called and hadn’t spoken to them in forever, and was like, 'Here's what I’m going through,' they all showed up. They didn’t know what to say, and they didn’t know what was appropriate, they just showed up on my doorstep and said, 'We love you, we're here.' They didn’t even say, 'What can we do?' It was just like, we're here.
"To me, that was one of the biggest things: It’s not about saying the right thing, because there isn’t always a right thing to say, and everyone knows that. We don’t get taught what to say in these situations: It’s just about showing up, and being there, and letting that person know that you love them and you care about them. And that's all it takes.
"After we had shaved my head, I remember one of my friends turning to me and saying, 'I need to tell you that I’m not always going to know how to handle this situation, and I think I’m going to make mistakes.' It blew me away that she even the awareness to realize that. And I don’t think it's a reasonable expectation to have of everyone who’s a support person, but just having some awareness that like, you might not necessarily know what the person needs, and you kind of have to take your cues from them. Knowing that there are people there for me, they love me, and they have no idea what they're doing — I have no idea what I’m doing — we're all just figuring this out together. We're all going to make mistakes, but I’m not alone. We're just standing in the fire together, figuring it out.
"I had one friend who would just regularly send me the silliest little gifts in the mail: sometimes cards, sometimes a letter, one time she literally sent me a butterfly catcher kit for a 4-year-old with a note that said, 'I thought you might have fun running around your garden for an hour.' I loved it so much, because it was just a symbol that she was thinking of me. And again, it’s not about the perfect gift, or what exactly does that person need? I certainly didn’t need a butterfly catcher when I was getting a mastectomy, but I loved it and I still have it to this day."
What do you think is missing from the conversation about young women and breast cancer?
RH: "I’m metastatic now, stage 4, so I talk to a lot of young women in the metastatic community who now have stage 4 advanced breast cancer. A number of those women who went to their doctor's office with a concern because they found a lump, were turned away and told, 'You’re too young, don’t worry.' Then it took them a year to two years to actually get diagnosis. In that year or two years, the cancer is just spreading, and growing, and probably metastasizing — and who knows how differently their story would have played out if they had been taken seriously at that first appointment?"
"I find it incredibly frustrating, and I think medical professionals need to start taking their concerns seriously. No woman should ever be turned away with the answer, 'You’re too young for this.' Because it's just not true. If there's a lump, it needs to be imaged, and it needs to be biopsied, and if a doctor isn’t willing to do that, they need to not be in patient care.
"I hate putting the burden on the patient, but until more medical professionals are wiling to make that their standard of care, it does become up to the patient to advocate for themselves. And don’t take you’re too young as an answer, because it's an unacceptable answer. Just go to a different doctor, find someone who will take you seriously, who will image it, biopsy it, and give you a real, medical answer. Being your own advocate enough is so crucial, because no one is going to push for your health more seriously than you are.
"Hopefully at some point, it'll become more of a societal and medical norm. The whole narrative that 'young women don’t get breast cancer' will just be eliminated, and you won't have to have these conversations anymore, and women won't have to push so hard. But until that happens, this is what we’ve got to do."
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For more stories about detecting, treating, or living with breast cancer, click here.