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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Morgan Watson, a 17-year-old breast cancer survivor, hugs Desie Thorn after speaking during a special assembly at Jordan High School to raise cancer awareness in Salt Lake County Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012.

SANDY — Morgan Watson is like every other teenager in many ways, but some things about her are exceptional. 

She started kindergarten at age 4 because she was already reading, her mother Jana Pendleton said. She excelled at softball and is an aspiring thespian who enjoys drama and acting.

And she became a breast cancer survivor before she was able to get a driver’s license.

The Herriman High graduate — and current Utah State University student — was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 15 after noticing a lump one day while in the shower. Women have a 1 and 28 chance of contracting breast cancer between the ages of 60 and 70. But as a teenager the risk is less than 1 in 20,000.

“Initially, I was terrified for my life,” she said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be alive for my next birthday. Every day was treasured as if it was my last.”

Watson spoke to students Wednesday at Jordan High School as part of the Susan G. Komen “I Am the Cure” campaign — a health program that teaches women simple steps of identifying cancer and potential health problems.

Dealing with the shock of the rare teenage discovery forced the family to begin the journey of searching for viable treatment options, Watson said. After seeing four different doctors, she found “a really great team of women” physicians at the Huntsman Cancer Institute that was able to develop a treatment plan that would help her in the quest to overcome the cancer.

“They all had children that were my age, so they basically treated me like I was their kid,” she said. “I was in very good hands from the very beginning and couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

She underwent aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatment that caused her to lose her long, thick hair, bringing on baldness for a time. It was a humbling and enlightening experience, she said.

“When it started falling out, I knew I would be seen as the girl with cancer,” Watson said. “So I wanted to embrace it and not let it ruin who I was as a person.”

Instead, she sought to inspire others, so she went to school proudly sporting her bald head. Her friends and fellow students were supportive, she said.

Later, Watson was faced with another difficult decision when doctors told her that in order to prevent future risk of recurrence, she could undergo a lumpectomy, a single mastectomy or a double mastectomy. Against doctors’ recommendations, she chose the latter and said she has never regretted it.

Following chemo and radiation, “I knew in my gut that I wanted it gone, and wanted to be done with it," she said of the cancer. “So I knew that was the best choice. I don’t want to do this again, ever!”

Today, she has had reconstructive surgery that included expanders and implants in the chest walls that are regularly filled with fluid as she grows and matures to give her a more natural appearance. 

“They are permanently awesome,” she said with a laugh, providing a confident young voice to the effort to bring breast cancer awareness into the light.

Watson has been cancer-free since January 2011 and considers herself someone whom others can view as a role model for overcoming adversity.

“If there is any kind of health risk in your family, get screened and know if you are up for that risk,” she advised. “If you’re better prepared and you are aware of the anomalies in your genes, then you are more informed. Preparation is everything.”

It speaks primarily to the importance of early detection, said Kathryn Soper, events manager for the Utah Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

That message resonated throughout the gymnasium Wednesday to students like 16-year-old junior Erin Wyness.

“Breast cancer is 99 percent curable if you catch it early enough,” Wyness said. ”It’s important to be informed even at a young age.”

According to information from the Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results Program of the National Cancer Institute, from 2005-2009,  less than 1 of every 100,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer was under the age of 20.   

“If you’ve got an unexplained symptom or problem, then bring it to the attention of your doctor,” said Dr. Roger Biss, oncologist with the Intermountain Blood and Marrow Transplant/Leukemia Program at LDS Hospital. “But realize that the statistical chance of having any cancer is extremely low.”

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