Shayna Vincent was living a life many would envy.
The professional development director at the Caruth Police Institute at UNT Dallas was balancing work with the needs of her daughters, newborn Avivah, and 4-year-old Mila.
But everything changed one day in 2019 when the then-34-year-old was nursing Avivah.
She found a lump that turned out to be breast cancer.
So began a 4 ½-year fight that ended on Sept. 12, 2023, when Vincent died at 38. Now, her girls, her husband Devon, and the rest of her family are picking up the pieces, trying to move on after losing a loving presence with so much life ahead of her.
Vincent’s case is not as rare as you might think: A recent study found that cancer is increasing among Americans younger than 50. According to the American Cancer Society, the rate of late-stage breast cancer diagnoses in women under 40 climbed by about 3 percent each year from 2000 to 2019.
And Vincent’s mother wants young women to be aware that they, too, might be at risk.
‘Usually, it’s nothing to be concerned about’
“Nursing moms always have lumps, and usually it’s nothing to be concerned about,” Johannah Luza recalled about her daughter’s unsettling discovery in 2019.
“She was not a worrier, but for some reason, she asked her doctor if she could go ahead and get one anyway,” Luza recalled. “Her doctor agreed but still felt it was nothing.”
A biopsy followed, and the results even shocked Vincent’s doctor, Luza said.
“I was planning for chemo when I should have been planning for my 1-year-old’s birthday party,” Vincent herself recalled during an online forum last year.
Four years of aggressive treatment followed that shocking diagnosis: 16 rounds of chemotherapy, dozens of rounds of radiation, a double mastectomy, and even more surgery when the cancer was found in her lymph nodes.
“Shayna went through 4 ½ years of living with this horrific disease, not just a physical nightmare but an emotional hell, not knowing how much longer she had with her family but still trying to have hope,” Luza said.
‘Mama’s Year With Cancer’
Amid the ordeal, Vincent never stopped giving back to her community. A daughter’s birthday, for instance, was celebrated as a “Be Kind Birthday,” during which they would volunteer for local agencies that needed help.
Vincent also spent her time in between treatments co-writing a children’s book about her struggle. “Mama’s Year With Cancer” was written in collaboration with Nancy Churnin and was released weeks after her death.
“How could I explain to my children what this disease meant for me and for us as a family when I couldn’t even comprehend it myself?” Vincent told the Texas Jewish Post in May.
The book’s story ends on a hopeful note when the mother completes her treatment and rings a bell to mark the event.
Vincent’s story, though, wasn’t over. Just when they thought the cancer was gone, Luza said, a final scan showed that it had reached Stage IV, as it had spread to her liver and spine.
It was a “terrible gut punch,” Luza recalled. “She did all the right things,” Luza said. “But she still ended up with Stage IV, and she just wanted people to know that … if you have a gut feeling [that something might be wrong], keep bugging your doctor about it.”
“See your doctor and demand a mammogram, no matter how young you are.”
Prevention begins with empowering yourself
Back when her treatment began, Luza said, doctors found that Vincent had a mutation of the CHEK2 gene, which increases the chance of cancer. That mutation is hereditary, and one niece who tested positive for the mutation – a 24-year-old – has since undergone a double mastectomy as a precaution, Luza said. (The American Cancer Society has more information about genetic counseling and breast cancer risk on its website.)
Doctors also found that Vincent’s cancer was “pregnancy-induced” and fed on estrogen, Luza said.
According to the National Cancer Institute, women who have recently given birth have a short-term increase in breast cancer risk.
Dr. Rachel Wooldridge, an oncology surgeon at UT Southwestern Medical Center, says women should empower themselves to get ahead of any life-threatening condition. Be aware of your family history, she said, and advocate for yourself if you want to see a genetic counselor or a specialist.
Women also have the option to get a breast ultrasound, which does not involve radiation and is even safe for pregnant women, Wooldridge said.
Worthy of your support
While awareness is one way to help prevent another tragedy like Vincent’s, research is the other, and Luza singled out two organizations that are worthy of your financial support.
METAvivor generally uses 100% of all donations to fund grant awards for metastatic breast cancer research directly. (According to the organization, “only 2 [to] 5% of money for breast cancer research is dedicated toward understanding metastatic breast cancer.”) Learn more at METAvivor.org.
Another organization worthy of your support is Bright Spot Network, which “provides young cancer survivors who are parents of small children with a safe space for individual and familial healing, recovery, and reconnection.” It provides support groups, grants, and other support. Learn more at BrightSpotNetwork.org.
Special thanks to Johannah Luza for her assistance in sharing her daughter’s story.