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San Diego Woman In Her Early 20s Battles Breast Cancer

Nakita Garcia, a 24-year-old San Diegan, is battling breast cancer, a disease that's almost unheard of in women her age.

— The majority of women who are stricken with breast cancer are over 50.

Nakita Garcia was diagnosed when she was 22. The young woman is married and is raising a daughter in Tierrasanta while she fights the disease.

Five days a week at Moores UC San Diego Cancer Center, dozens of patients come in for chemotherapy.

They sit for hours at a time to be poked and prodded, and to get the potentially life-saving drugs into their bodies.

Most of them are decades older than Nakita Garcia.

Garcia is 24, and is already in her third round of chemotherapy. She’s also being treated with an experimental drug.

Garcia’s battle started in the fall of 2010. One day, she found a lump in her left breast.

"I knew it wasn’t there before," Garcia recalled, "'cause I had been breast feeding when my daughter was younger, and so I was always worried about clogged milk glands. And all of a sudden, there was like this lump."

Her doctor didn’t think the lump was serious. But Garcia wanted to make sure. So she had it removed.

Garcia remembered when the surgeon called to say it was a cancerous tumor.

"I was at work," she said, "and I just made it to the restroom to go cry, ‘cause it wasn’t anything that I expected. At my age, you don’t think about something like that. And the first thing that popped into my mind was, 'how am I gonna survive this?'"

Garcia’s husband is a sergeant in the Marine Corps, and was stationed in Yuma, Ariz. at the time.

That’s where Garcia had a second surgery to make sure the tumor was gone from her breast.

It was her 23rd birthday.

"And so I started chemo right away, without any time to look into it, any repercussions of what would come later, like infertility," Garcia said. "Obviously, I thought I’d lose my hair, and I did."

After her first round of chemo, Garcia had an MRI to see if the cancer had spread. Garcia read the report before she saw her oncologist.

"So when I went in and had my appointment with him," she remembered, "he said, 'oh, and now it’s in the other breast.' And I said, like, 'no, it’s not, it’s in the same place it was before.' Didn’t you read the report? And so then he flipped through the pages, and goes, 'oh yeah, it is on the left side.' So ever since then, I was like, I gotta get away from this doctor."

Luckily, her husband got transferred to San Diego last fall. That’s when Garcia started seeing doctors at Moores Cancer Center.

Her oncologist, Teresa Helsten, said Garcia is the youngest woman she’s ever treated with active breast cancer.

"Her cancer is responding very well to the treatment, and so that’s always very encouraging," Dr. Helsten pointed out. "On top of that, besides seeing response of the cancer to treatment, we really like to see that the treatment is not causing very many side effects, not too toxic. And she’s sailing through, with hardly any noticeable side effects. So that’s like the best of both worlds."

Still, Garcia had to have a double mastectomy. After that, cancer was found in her left lung.

Garcia’s breast cancer is classified as triple negative; that’s the most aggressive type.

Nonetheless, through all of her surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy, Garcia has tried to maintain a normal family life.

Two-year-old Allayna is Garcia’s pride and joy. When Garcia’s not in treatment, she spends time with her daughter, and her husband Anthony.

"We still, you know, go to movies, go on dates and stuff," Anthony Garcia said. "Our parents come out, help out with our daughter. But as far as doing things we should be doing? I don’t really know what normal people do."

Doctors say Garcia’s cancer treatments will continue for some time. And she’ll need to undergo reconstructive surgery in the near future. But for now, Garcia’s not letting cancer ruin her life. She recently went skydiving for the first time.

"Even if you’re dealt a bad hand, or something goes wrong in your life, you just have to, kind of look past it. And you just deal with it, and you keep going," Garcia said.

Health officials estimate more than 226,000 American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.

Video by Nicholas McVicker

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