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Young adults face cancer

Author: Emily Cousins

I learned that I had breast cancer when I was 32 years old and nine months pregnant with my first child. I gave birth to a son and then dove into months of grueling treatment. In between trips to the cancer center, I relished the ordinary pleasures of caring for my baby. One day I decided to bring him to music class so that he could laugh along to the tunes and I could meet other moms.

Yet when I walked into the room, I instantly felt out of place. All of the women had hair, but I wore a scratchy little hat covering my bald head. Most of the mothers started nursing in between songs, but I couldn’t breastfeed because chemo had poisoned my milk. After class several women gathered to discuss the trials of nighttime feeding. I wanted to say that fears of metastasis kept me awake more than my baby did, but I knew how jarring that would sound to these women. I slipped away from the group and never returned.

Being diagnosed with cancer can be an isolating experience, especially for survivors in our twenties and thirties. When we go to the cancer center, we are decades younger than most of the other patients. Yet among our own friends, we feel old before our time. Suddenly, we must confront the loss of things our peers take for granted—things like testicles, fertility, youthful confidence and faith in the future. As one young survivor of ovarian cancer says, “None of my other friends are in menopause yet. How can they possibly understand?”

It can be hard for survivors to explain our struggles to office-mates or buddies at the bar or even our closest friends. Nita was 27 and in her final year of law school when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, but just before she started her first job her body rejected the implants and she had to wait several months before she could repeat the procedure. “I would be sitting at work with other young associates,” she says, “and I could not relate to them at all. They were talking about how hard it was to make billable hours. I am like, ‘How important is that?’ Or they would talk about relationships. It seemed so foreign to me. I was convinced that dating couldn’t be a part of my life after cancer. How could I possibly feel comfortable talking to them about it?”

Sometimes we drift away from old friends because our habits change. One survivor of testicular cancer says he lost touch with his ice-climbing buddies because he no longer had the strength to go on expeditions. Another young breast cancer survivor describes how people her age did not understand when she cut down on social drinking after treatment.

“People don’t seem to grasp that this is a serious health decision with real consequences for me. They take it very lightly and continue with, ‘Ah, come on, just one drink!’”

Our friends mean well, and many deliver rock-solid support. But they do not always know what to say when we share our struggles. They could counsel us through layoffs or breakups or bad roommates, but life-threatening disease is not something most people in their twenties and thirties are prepared to discuss.

Elan was a fit, 27-year-old consultant who loved playing sports. Then he learned he had a tumor the size of a football in his pelvis and would need extensive surgery. He did years of physical therapy to move from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane to a limp. “When this happens to you at a
younger age, your friends don’t know how to react,” he says. “It’s not the norm to get sick. At an older age, people are seasoned, and their friends are seasoned, but mine just didn’t have the experience.”

Many of my friends tried to understand my pain and confusion, but I often felt like I was speaking a foreign language and that most of what I said was lost in translation. Then I attended a workshop for young cancer survivors, and I suddenly felt understood. These men and women had different diagnoses and various kinds of treatments, but we all knew what it was like to face mortality well in advance of our peers.

As I shared my story, they nodded knowingly when I said it was hard to watch friends buy apartments and begin second pregnancies when I could not plan past my next cancer screening. They agreed when I said I hated what chemo had done to my sex life. And they held my hand when I said I worried that I would not live long enough to see my son enter kindergarten. It was an enormous relief to discover I was not as isolated as I thought.

The friends I made in that workshop sustained me and led me to other young survivors. I slowly realized that there are resources for people our age; we just have to seek them out. “When you finally find the resources out there, use them,” urges Haley, a survivor of cervical cancer. “When I was diagnosed, I thought I was the only young person in the world to get cancer ever. Now I know I am not alone.”

Learn more about young adults and cancer

Young adults can connect with other survivors through stupidcancer.org, the nation’s largest support group for young adults. Stupid Cancer is a nonprofit organization that empowers young adults affected by cancer through innovative and award-winning programs and services. The nation’s largest support community for this under-served population, Stupid Cancer serves as a bullhorn for the young adult cancer movement. The organization’s charter is to ensure that no one goes unaware of the age-appropriate support resources they are entitled to so they can get busy living.

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