Life as a young adult cancer survivor

We're all in this together.
We’re all in this together.

This week was designated the very important Young Adult Cancer Awareness Week to raise better awareness of the challenges facing young adults diagnosed with cancer. Consider these facts:*

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  • More than 70,000 young adults (ages 15-39) are diagnosed with cancer every year.
  • One young adult (ages 15-39) is diagnosed with cancer every eight minutes.
  • Survival rates for young adults with cancer have barely improved since the 1970s.
  • Gaps in care continue to exist for young adult cancer survivors.
  • Six percent of all diagnoses are in young adults compared to less than one percent in children.
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If you’re a long time reader of this blog, you know that I am a young adult cancer survivor of bone cancer. I was three months shy of graduating from college and starting a career when I heard the terrifying news. Cancer rocked my world in many different ways, and the aftermath continues to provide struggles at times. Being a young adult – too young to be child and not quite old enough to always be taken seriously – brings many challenges for a healthy person. Many are graduating college, starting new careers, starting new relationships. Many are focused on having fun, testing out life and looking to the future. Cancer brings all that to a halt.

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You don’t think of your own mortality when you’re a young adult. You don’t worry about hospital bills, insurance and having hair. At least you shouldn’t have to. Cancer changes that. When treatment ends and people expect you to move on like life is normal, you feel lost. Life will never be the same. You worry and wonder about things that people shouldn’t. You ponder how to tell a new boyfriend/girlfriend of your health history so they won’t run away scared. Job offers are weighed by duties, opportunities – and insurance options. Having children is not a given because chemo, radiation and surgery might have taken that away. You struggle to fit in with friends who might not understand how precious life is.

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Thankfully young adult cancer survivors are not alone. There are many of us in the U.S. who have lived many of the same struggles through treatment and into life after treatment. And there are many wonderful organizations dedicated to helping young adults maneuver through treatment, insurance and life after cancer. This is not an exhaustive list but some of the ones I have worked with, volunteered at or received support from. All of the programs listed are free.

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Imerman Angels: Meeting someone who has survived the same cancer and undergone many of the same issues can be invaluable. Imerman Angels provides one on one support to anyone going through treatment for any type of cancer. They pair up a person going through treatment with someone who has finished treatment of the same cancer. I signed up as a volunteer and currently mentor another young adult survivor of bone cancer. Imerman Angels also provides matches for caregivers of cancer survivors. You don’t have to be local to be a mentor – today’s technology provides a variety of ways to connect.

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A magical place to support.
A magical place to support.

Camp Māk-A-Dream: This place will always be close to my heart because it was the first place I went to where I was surrounded by young adults who ‘got me.’ My experiences helped me embrace being a survivor and make life-long friendships with other young adults. Camp Māk-A-Dream is located in Gold Creek, Mont. and provides cost-free conferences for children, teens and young adults with cancer. You can be in or out of treatment, depending on the conference you attend. In between informative education sessions, participants can swim, hike, play games, work in the art studio, have fun on the miniature golf course or ropes course. There are evening activities, such as star-gazing (under the amazing Montana sky!), line dancing and more. The food is great, the cabins are cozy and the opportunity to interact with fellow young adult cancer survivors is priceless.

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Critical Mass: The Young Adult Cancer Alliance: Bringing together many organizations dedicated to benefiting young adults with cancer, Critical Mass provides resources, hosts an annual conference and offers a voice for those touched by the disease.

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One of many resources provided by Livestrong.
One of many resources provided by Livestrong.

LIVESTRONG Foundation: One of the leading organizations for cancer survivors, LIVESTRONG provides resources to people during and after treatment for cancer, as well as for caregivers. LIVESTRONG also is a loud voice for cancer survivors in state and national advocacy issues.

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Stupid Cancer: Focused on empowering young adults with cancer, Stupid Cancer provides numerous programs and services to this group. Their website offers a great forum where you can ask questions related to money, fertility, relationships, work and more, and their annual conference is always well-attended.

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Cancer Support Community: With more than 50 chapters in the U.S. and online support, CSC provides social and emotional support to anyone touched by any cancer (including families and friends). Many chapters host a young adults with cancer support group, which is a great way to meet others going through similar challenges. They also host social programs, such as yoga, art workshops, potlucks, children’s activities, knitting and more. CSC is the “parent organization” of The Wellness Community and Gilda’s Club chapters (they merged in 2009).

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SAMFund for Young Adult Cancer Survivors: This organization was founded by a young adult survivor I met in Montana. It exists to provide financial scholarships to young adult cancer survivors for a variety of reasons – rent, college tuition, fertility treatments, health insurance premiums and more. They also offer webinars on important topics, such as navigating the job market post-treatment.

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Like I said, these are just a few of the organizations that provide great support to young adult cancer survivors. What other organizations have helped you or a young adult you know?

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*Source: Critical Mass: Young Adult Alliance; Livestrong; American Cancer Society

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