Breast cancer under 40: How a young survivor is conquering cancer’s challenges through sarcasm and science

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the U.S., with a median age for diagnosis around 62 years old, but for Elisabeth (Betsy) Cowles, a young 38-year-old mother of four and a full-time student, being diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer started with what she thought was a clogged milk duct while nursing her new baby.

“I noticed my daughter wasn’t feeding on that breast, and I was in a lot of pain, so I immediately thought it was a clogged milk duct,” said Cowles. “I visited my OB-GYN, and she thought the same thing but decided to do an ultrasound.”

Cowles is not new to breast cancer. Her mother is a breast cancer survivor, but neither her nor her mother carry the BRCA gene. Because of her mother’s diagnosis, she’s always been diligent in performing self-breast-exams and being aware of what to look out for and was thankful for her doctor’s recommendation.

“I’m so grateful my OB-GYN pushed me to get the initial ultrasound,” said Cowles. “It’s really important to follow through if something isn’t feeling right.”

Cowles recalls her follow-up being a whirlwind of events and emotions. After her second ultrasound came back abnormal, she was sent directly to do a mammogram, and it was immediately determined that a biopsy was needed, which was done at the Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Greater Lansing

Several days later, Cowles received a call from Dr. Suzanne Hanses, a surgeon at McLaren Greater Lansing’s Comprehensive Breast Care Clinic, and was told of her diagnosis of invasive carcinoma-stage 3B.  Since then, she’s worked closely with Dr. Daniel Isaac, an oncologist at the Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Greater Lansing, on her multidisciplinary treatment plan.

“Dr. Hanses and Dr. Isaac have been my rocks through this whole experience,” said Cowles. “There was a point when I hit a wall about midway through my treatments and they were both there to support me, and it made this such a positive journey for me.”

As Cowles was going through chemotherapy, an additional PET scan showed more cancerous nodes which led to her having a mastectomy and her lymph nodes removed, and she started radiation therapy.

On April 10, 2023, Cowles finished her last radiation treatment and has no plans to slow down any time soon.

“In my mind, there was no choice for me to fall apart. I have four kids, I’m young and going to school, and my husband and I right away decided we were going to take this head-on,” said Cowles. “We knew laughter is what was going to make us get through the hard times, so we’ve had a saying throughout this process that we’re doing this with sarcasm and science,” said Cowles.

Cowles and her husband have three boys, a 7-year-old, a 6-year-old, and a 3-year-old, and a daughter who is 1. She is going to school for her second bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She also has been able to take her experience and share her journey on her social media along with connecting with friends and family who have also recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I never thought that I would be diagnosed with breast cancer at my age,” said Cowles. “It’s important for me to take this opportunity to share my experience and let other young women know this can happen at a young age and to get their screenings done.”

Karmanos Cancer Institute partnered with the Detroit Tigers major league baseball team and McLaren Health Care, the official health care system of the Tigers, to kick off the 11th annual Pink Out the Park, a celebration that brings Tigers fans together to recognize and encourage survivors, honor the memories of friends and loved ones, and raise funds to support breast cancer research. This year, Dr. Isaac nominated Cowles to be honored at the game.

“Betsy deserves to be recognized for her selfless care for others even in the face of her cancer journey. She is truly an inspiration,” Dr. Isaac said in his nomination. 

Cowles and a group of 40 of her close friends and family will be attending the Tigers game on May 12, 2023, when the Tigers take on the Seattle Mariners. Cowles will be one of the breast cancer survivors recognized and celebrated during the event.

“We are renting a bus to go to the game and celebrate all together, and I’m really looking forward to it,” said Cowles.

Fans can also purchase special Pink Out the Park ticket packages that include a pink Tigers bucket hat and a $5 donation to support breast cancer research at Karmanos by visiting

Throughout the Karmanos Cancer Network, oncology care teams see more than 12,000 new patients annually. As one of Michigan’s preferred cancer treatment providers, patients have access to new treatments often only available at Karmanos. To learn more about the Karmanos advantage throughout the network, at locations near a McLaren facility, click here.

For more articles on health and wellness, click here.