In the cancer world, I am considered a young adult patient (YA; someone diagnosed with cancer between the ages of 18-39). In contrast, pediatric patients are those under 18 and patients who are 40+, I suppose, are just ‘cancer patients’ – no special labels for them. Over the past few months, I’ve experienced many things that YAs with cancer have to deal with that might not be so common among pediatric and/or older patients and since I’m writing on this blog about what it’s like to be a 30 year old with cancer, I should probably touch on some of these issues. I’ve been able to reflect on them a lot more now that I’m done with active treatment, so here we go.
A jumping off point…recently, a column was posted in the Huffington Post.com’s Healthy Living section by a 20 year old woman named Elise Frame who was diagnosed with leukemia, and she equates being a YA with cancer as being in a sort of medical no-man’s land. We are treated in the adult center because of our age, although we face many of the same issues as pediatric patients (concerns about living a healthy life after cancer/avoiding recurrence) and older patients alike (job security, health insurance coverage, maintaining relationships).
I must admit that it sounds like I’ve had a much better experience in the adult cancer center at my hospital than Ms. Frame had at hers. We have psychologists and nutritionists who specialize in working with cancer patients that are available to us at any time. I’ve partaken in art and pet therapy while getting treatments (Coloring with crayons and petting furry dogs really does make you feel better when you’re getting chemo, by the way. You basically revert to a child-like state.). There are numerous social workers and patient advocates available to help you navigate the insurance maze, handle medical leaves, and applying for state aid. Most importantly, my doctors, nurses and therapists are amazingly caring and compassionate people. They seem to love their jobs and have gone out of their way to make me feel as comfortable as possible.
That said, being a YA with cancer has presented its own share of issues that may not be encountered by younger or older patients.
First of all, there’s the simple fact that as a YA with cancer, you don’t often see other patients in your age group at the adult cancer center. I was in active treatment for seven months, and over that time, I saw patients in the center who were relatively close to my age less than 5 times. Otherwise, I was typically surrounded by middle aged or, mostly, elderly patients. Not seeing anyone else “like you” can make you feel really isolated and circus side show-y as you walk around the clinic.
The one thing I craved during treatment more than anything else (other than sleep and to be cured) was to connect with people my age who were going through the same thing. The easiest place for a patient to connect to other patients is in their cancer center while they’re getting treatment. Even a brief conversation with a fellow patient to commiserate can be a huge pick me up in your day. While I didn’t mind chatting with Ethel about how horrible she feels and how her grandchildren are coming by to visit her in the clinic later on, it wasn’t the same as talking with someone my own age who was also getting treatment. When chatting with the elderly patients, I felt like I needed to put on a sweet smile and be overly polite when I really just wanted to talk to someone like I would one of my friends about how horribly sick I felt. As much as talking to my own friends and family helped in some ways, no one really knows what you’re going through as a cancer patient unless they’ve been through it themselves, making connecting with other YA cancer patients all the more important.
My cancer center has support groups that meet once a week or every other week, but it would be really nice if they had a YA specific group. I know of several centers that do this, but if this isn’t available to you, you have to seek out other avenues of support. Fortunately, a non-profit for YAs called Stupid Cancer (www.stupidcancer.org) was formed by a YA patient in 2007. Their website has forums where you can connect with other patients on a variety of topics. They also have a Facebook page and a podcast so you can connect that way as well. StupidCancer also holds a yearly summit to allow patients/survivors to meet and interact and the regional divisions hold smaller meet ups across the country. They also advertise seminars and conferences specifically for YAs with cancer, so it’s a great resource.
Many non-profits/societies for specific types of cancer have support groups and fortunately for me, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society holds an online chat each week specifically for YAs who currently are undergoing treatment for blood cancers and survivors. I’ve been joining in on that group for a few weeks now, and it’s been helpful to discuss side effects, how everyone deals with different obstacles, and just to feel connected to other patients. This blog has helped me to connect to other patients, too, both through comment sections on other blogs or via email. It certainly helps to connect to other patients in any way that you can.
Medically speaking, there are a number of issues YAs face that might be shared with pediatric patients but not older adult patients in adult clinics. Because the majority of patients in adult clinics are not YAs, the oncologists in those clinics may not be as comfortable with discussing some of these issues as they’re often focused on the effects of cancer and treatments on older patients. This is ultimately why Ms. Frame chose to switch to a pediatric clinic as YAs and pediatric patients alike deal with the reality that having cancer and being blasted with chemo and radiation at a young age can have significant side effects on your health for the rest of your, hopefully, lengthy life. Older patients may have secondary illnesses further down the line, but the fact remains that they likely don’t have to live a majority of their lives with the issues I’ll mention below.
When my oncology team got to the point where they were discussing the side effects of chemotherapy with me in the hospital, my thoughts quickly went to what effects chemotherapy would have on my fertility. As a married woman in my early 30s with no children (although Jeff and I do want to have them), you can’t help but immediately worry that chemotherapy could prevent you from having biological children of your own. (Chemo wreaks havoc on the female reproductive system – it can cause temporary or permanent infertility and early menopause, and radiation can permanently damage the ovaries and/or eggs, if you are radiated in the abdominal region.) In a matter of just a few days, I went from leading a normal life and planning on having kids down the line to being suddenly faced with the prospect that I might not ever be able to have children of my own with Jeff.
A quick, but important, side note here. I really like my hematology oncologist for a variety of reasons – most importantly that he is an excellent physician – but I think one of the reasons I feel so comfortable with him is that he is in his late 30s, only a few years older than me. I have been able to talk with him about all of the potential issues I’m facing specifically as a YA cancer patient, because I know they’re issues he can identify with, even if most of his other patients are much older than me. This is a large part of the reason why I feel so well cared for in the adult clinic.
When I brought up my concerns regarding fertility, my hematology oncologist immediately validated my feelings and concerns. He informed me that about 90% of women my age who undergo R-CHOP keep their fertility and have children after treatment. It might be harder than it would have been, but it is possible. He did say though that there was a possibility that I could lose my fertility due to treatment, so he brought in a reproductive endocrinologist for me to speak with about our options in terms of preserving my fertility and I met with her before I began my treatments. The urgency with which he handled this and the validation he gave my concerns was really important to me. I’ve heard many stories from other YAs who say that their oncologists didn’t feel that the preservation of fertility was as important as starting treatment right away, and I’ve heard of patients who really had to lobby to get more detailed information about their options before beginning treatment. My oncologist recognized that I have a life outside of cancer that could be changed dramatically and permanently if he didn’t do what he could to help me make the best decision, and I am so grateful for that.
(Just for those who are curious…the repro. endocrinologist informed me that our best option for preserving fertility was to freeze our embryos as if we were undergoing the in vitro fertilization process. Apparently, storing embryos, as opposed to solely eggs, is more effective in the long term. There are some downsides to this process, though. The most important of which at that point was that I would have to hold off on starting chemo treatments for about three weeks and would have to inject myself with hormones everyday to stimulate egg production. I would feel even worse than I already did and I would risk the mass spreading or growing in the meantime. Although I’m insured through an employer in Massachusetts where infertility treatments are completely covered by insurance, I was a patient in Rhode Island where it is not covered. Thus, the process would cost a minimum of $7,000. But, I was informed that “storage” of the embryos was “fairly cheap” at $300/year. They would have been stored at a facility in Manhattan. It’s an odd thought – I would be carrying out my life in Rhode Island and our embryos would just be chillin’ (literally) at a facility in NYC. Ultimately, Jeff and I felt strongly that our chance to have children on our own was still good and I really didn’t want to have to wait to begin treatment so we decided against this whole process. Plus, we didn’t want to go into debt on top of everything else that was going on to save some embryos that we might not need.)
I’m hoping to get at least another 50 years out of this body, so I have to think about other effects that chemotherapy and radiation may have on me years down the line. For one thing, I will have to live a good portion of my life getting lab work and scans and checking in with both of my oncologists. That doesn’t sound taxing but the wait in between, constantly worrying if something new will show up or if your old cancer will come back, can be excruciating. Because I will have a longer period of time ahead of me than most other adult patients, I have a greater (although still relatively low) likelihood of developing a secondary cancer from radiation, like breast or lung cancer. I will also have a greater likelihood of developing heart disease earlier in life and may need to have arteries or valves replaced in my heart due to the side effects of R-CHOP. Many of these issues are those that are known to develop 20-30 years down the line, well after many older cancer patients would expect to live. Again, it helps in my case that I have an oncologist who talked through these possibilities with me before I began both my chemo and radiation treatments. Not every YA patient has this opportunity to know what they’re getting into.
While I’m sure that the cosmetic issues faced by cancer patients is tough regardless of age, I think they are tougher on pediatric and, particularly, YA patients. Imagine being a 21 year old young woman without hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, or nails. Imagine that your skin is yellowed and dry and you’ve either lost or gained a tremendous amount of weight from your treatments. It can be demoralizing and debilitating. It’s a time in your life where you try to look your best to attract a significant other and you feel as if you’re supposed to be in your physical prime and yet, you don’t even recognize yourself in the mirror anymore. Having an oncologist who sympathizes with this and can help you plan for hair loss or answer your seemingly superficial questions (like, “When can I dye my hair again?”) is a very good thing, but I fear that not all oncologists in adult clinics are receptive to these types of conversations as they view treatment as the only thing that is important.
There are effects on YAs beyond the medical issues that may not be as prominent for cancer patients of other age groups. As we’ve learned through all of the discussions about “Obamacare”, YAs are more likely not to have adequate insurance as this is a time in life when you may think you don’t need to worry about having a job with good benefits or that it’s more important to get a job/internship doing something you love, even if it doesn’t offer health insurance. On top of that, YAs tend to think that nothing “bad” will happen to them in terms of their health so purchasing private insurance isn’t a perceived necessary expense. Let me tell you, my cancer care, which isn’t all that complex compared to what other patients go through, has been billed to my insurance to tune of easily $500,000 and climbing every day. A colleague of mine had a complex case of leukemia and her care cost over $2 million. Imagine having to cover this out of pocket as a 22 year old intern at a magazine. The fact is, you couldn’t cover. Cancer can financially ruin YA patients if they aren’t prepared with good insurance coverage. Even if they have insurance, it might not cover everything and the co-pays and deductibles alone can be overwhelming. While pediatric patients are often covered by their parent’s insurance or can be covered by state/federal aid programs and older adults are likely to be more established in their careers and have benefits coverage or may be eligible for Medicaid/Medicare, many YAs may not be prepared for this type of disease to hit them and are caught financially off guard.
Further, YAs may be in college or working their first full time job when they’re diagnosed. Managing college classes and living amongst several thousand other people in a dorm aren’t exactly the best conditions for a cancer patient so many YAs are forced to take a leave of absence from school for an undetermined amount of time. They’re then disconnected from their social networks and can feel even more isolated. YAs who are lucky enough to have a full time job are usually at the start of the careers and their position at a particular company might be more tenuous than that of an older adult patient. Job security is a clear issue for YAs with cancer and it can be difficult to find your way back into the workforce again after you go into remission.
Finally, there are many social issues that YAs with cancer must deal with. As I’ve mentioned before, telling my parents and my husband that I had cancer was the hardest thing that I’ve had to do. No adult child should have to have that conversation with their parents – it’s absolutely gut wrenching. I am lucky in that my husband and I have been together for 14 years or so, so bumps in the road like this are manageable for us. However, I could imagine where a YA with cancer who has a “younger” relationship might struggle and it would be even more difficult to find a significant other during or after treatment as your self esteem can really bottom out between the hair loss, surgery scars, and weight gain/loss that can come with treatment.
This isn’t to say that pediatric or older adult patients don’t go through some or all of these issues, but I think the YA population is really dealt a tough and complex hand when they receive a cancer diagnosis. I have been SO lucky to keep a constant salary and benefits, to know that my job will be there for me when I’m ready to come back, to keep steady relationships with family and friends, and to have medical teams that understand what I’m going through. Unfortunately, not every YA is so lucky. In the future, I’d love to see more support for this group and I’ll continue to do what I can to get the word out!