Conquering breast cancer at the age of 24

April 16, 2024
Haley Shirley, who found out she had breast cancer at 24 years old.
Haley Shirley learned she had breast cancer at 24 years old. Support from family, friends and her care team helped her beat it. Photos by Ryan Severance, UCHealth.

At 24 years old, the last thing Haley Shirley expected was a diagnosis of breast cancer.

A mammogram in September 2022 showed no signs or symptoms of cancer, but only a few months later, in January 2023, Shirley felt an unusual pain under her armpit.

“I first noticed it when my dog wanted to cuddle with me and laid up against me on my side,’’ Shirley said. “I started to have some pain there, and as I did a self-exam, noticed a lump.

“I called my doctor right away and got in the next day to see a nurse practitioner. I’ll admit that I was scared at that point, but I recognized that it was imperative that I get checked right away.”

Shirley has no family history of breast cancer or genes associated with cancer, but after a confirmed diagnosis, she began treatment right away at UCHealth Cancer Center – Pueblo.

“I just jumped right into things, which made it a really fast and slow year, all at the same time,” Shirley said.

Branden Shirley, Haley Shirley and Dineen Ruiz take a stroll in Pueblo.
Braden Shirley, Haley Shirley and Deneen Ruiz and Koda take a stroll in Pueblo.

Support key to dealing with breast cancer diagnosis

Blessed with support from family and friends, the young woman who had been an athlete in high school and college forged ahead with a positive attitude and desire to win the battle against cancer.

“Growing up, I was really into sports – that was my main thing,” she said.

A Pueblo West High School graduate who went to college at the University of Kentucky, Shirley spent time as a varsity cheerleader on the sidelines during Wildcat football and basketball games. She participated in softball and track and graduated from the university with an associate degree.

Then came the cancer diagnosis.

Family support and being able to go to treatments with her husband and her parents kept her emotionally grounded and allowed her to continue to participate in typical everyday activities, including swimming and hiking.

“I took it easy, but overall, I tried to do as best I could and just keep my life as normal as possible,” Shirley said.

Breast cancer remission

During months of treatment, the staff at Parkview became “like family.’’ On Sept. 19, 2023, when she received news that her cancer was in remission, Shirley and her caregivers marked the day with a celebration.

Deneen Ruiz and Haley Shirley pose for a photo.
Deneen Ruiz and Haley Shirley pose for a photo.

“I had all the staff with me, and when I came out into the waiting room, my parents, my husband, my in-laws, my brother, my sister-in-law, my nieces and nephews, everyone was there to celebrate and watch me ring the bell,” said Shirley. (Ringing a bell to mark the end of treatment has become a tradition in many cancer centers across the U.S.)

“It was a happy and sad moment. It was so encouraging to see everyone there who supported me, but at the same time, sad that I have to leave the staff – but for good reasons.”

The team at Parkview had supported her only a few months earlier in another one of life’s milestones.

“I was married back in August. They wanted to see and hear all the wedding plans and look at all the pictures and videos,” she said.

She credits the cancer center team with their ability to see ‘behind the scenes’ of the patient side of treatment.

“Sometimes it’s hard to describe to my husband and family what radiation treatments are really like. Having that medical team support was equally as important.

“Now, I’m finally cancer-free – but looking back, it was a tough journey.”

Importance of breast cancer screenings

Shirley said she wants to raise awareness about the importance of getting a mammogram. She hopes to eventually talk to young women in high school and college about the importance of preventative screenings.

“Anyone can potentially be at risk,” said Shirley. “You don’t have to have specific genes or a family history. You know your own body better than anyone. Be proactive and don’t be afraid to get yourself checked.”

She said she will be forever grateful for the family, friends and caregivers who stood beside her in her journey.

“I’ve been blessed with a great support structure of family and friends – even people I don’t really know – who reached out to me with kindness and encouragement. Sometimes you don’t always know who might be with you in your corner, but they are there to help regardless.”

About the author

Born and raised in Pueblo, Colorado, Seip graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Southern Colorado and later obtained a master’s degree in education from Walden University in Maryland. After graduation, he started his career in the media industry, working as a news reporter, director and program manager at KCSJ Radio/Pueblo Broadcasters Inc. He then moved into the arts sector, working at the Sangre De Cristo Arts and Conference Center in Pueblo.

His passion for education led him to pursue a career in teaching, spending 20 years in Pueblo School District 70 teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), music and computer science. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he served as the public information officer and assistant director for the Pueblo School District 70 Department of Student Services. Currently, he serves as a communications specialist for UCHealth Parkview Medical Center.

Seip is married to Kerry, a music and STEM teacher in Pueblo School District 70, and is the proud father of two adopted children, both currently attending universities in Colorado.