The standard definition of “young adult cancer survivors” (AYAs) includes late adolescents (age 15-plus) up to 39-year-olds. Studies show that nearly every phase of a young adult cancer patient’s journey through the cancer system and beyond can be more difficult than that of an older patient. Young people do not expect to be diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, and because diagnosis is rare in this age range, doctors may not immediately order cancer tests. Many AYAs experience advanced stages of the disease due to a delay in diagnosis.
During treatment, AYAs may have greater financial challenges due to less savings, job inflexibility and decreased job security. They may also have important family responsibilities, like caring for and supporting small children, which can make managing treatment schedules and side effects very difficult. Many AYAs need to move back in with their parents, quit school and put their careers on hold. This can cause them to fall behind their peers, and the awkwardness of talking about their cancer can further exacerbate the challenges of connecting with friends.
Following treatment, after-effects can disrupt education, dating, marriage plans, family planning, the ability to be self-supporting and delay progress toward life goals. According to our screening-for-distress survey results, AYAs struggle with practical and psychosocial problems to a greater degree. They report higher unmet survivorship needs and higher distress than older patients. Because of this, a dedicated group of professionals has been meeting in Alberta to design a unique AYA cancer program to meet the needs of young adults across the province.
If you are a young adult living with cancer, there are resources. Visit CancerBridges.ca’s young adults page, YACC, Survive and Thrive Cancer Programs and Wellspring for ways to connect. The Alberta Cancer Foundation is also moving forward to create opportunities for young adults in Alberta. All of these efforts can reduce the sense of isolation young adults often feel and empower them to live well, despite cancer.
Janine Giese-Davis recently had the opportunity to keynote the Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC) annual Survivor Conference, and tell her own cancer survivorship story. When she was 22 and four months pregnant, Janine’s 23-year-old husband was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He died when he was just 25 and their son was 18 months old, leaving her a widow and new mom. In fact, Janine was on the front lines of support not only for her husband, but also her father and uncle during her own young adulthood. These experiences motivated her to become a clinician and a researcher, striving to ask the right questions and provide the survivorship programming patients and families say they want. Sometimes using a cancer experience to give back, like Janine did, is one way to cope with such unexpected changes in life.
Mike Lang, who was diagnosed with cancer at 25 and has co-facilitated CancerBridges’ education and website material, also used his experience with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma to motivate himself and his wife. Together they created “Survive and Thrive Cancer Programs,” that provide outdoor adventure programs, compelling educational films, workshops and a healthy living blog for AYAs and their supporters.