Cancer is challenging at any age, but young cancer survivors may feel especially alone. Perhaps your friends have never been around someone with cancer and you lack social support. Or you are just launching your career and find life screeching to a halt as you face treatment.
Lauren Garvey, MS, CRC, NCC, a counselor and facilitator at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont, describes the unique challenges young cancer survivors face.
1. Isolation and lack of social support
According to the National Cancer Institute, 70,000 people between the ages of 15 and 39 are diagnosed with cancer each year, accounting for only 5 percent of cancer diagnoses. This means you may see few patients your age as you go through treatment.
“One thing that sticks out when I’m talking to young cancer survivors is that they feel as though they are pioneering the experience among their group of friends or peers,” says Garvey. “They may be the first person they know who has received a cancer diagnosis. They may find that their friends are not familiar or comfortable with their diagnosis.”
Your partner, friends and family want to be there for you during this challenging time. By communicating what you need — someone to watch your young child, drive you to chemotherapy or pick up groceries — you can educate them on how to best help you.
Garvey also highly recommends connecting with other young survivors. Check out the Young Survival Coalition, which has chapters throughout the country and hosts conferences and meetups. Cancer Wellness also hosts young survivor-specific events.
2. Fertility concerns
“Fertility is a huge concern that comes up a lot among my clients,” she says. “Some of the young survivors I’ve met with haven’t gotten the chance to decide whether they want to start a family or get married. I’ve met with more than one young woman who received a cancer diagnosis around the time she was preparing to start a family or a year or two into marriage.”
Your physician can provide fertility counseling or connect you to the right resource who can address your specific circumstance and options.
3. Dating and marriage
Whether you are single, dating or married, cancer can feel like a major interruption in the natural progression of your relationships. Maybe you have completed treatment and are trying to decide how to tell the new person you are dating that you are a cancer survivor. Perhaps you are newly married and never expected cancer to be part of the honeymoon phase.
If you are not ready to date during or after your treatment, know that it’s okay to take your time and do what is right for you. There is no one “right” way to navigate romantic relationships during the cancer journey.
When it comes to dating relationships, it is important to discern how much you trust someone, how well you know them and what you are comfortable telling them.
For newlyweds, many find cancer brings them closer.
“Someone recently told me that she and her husband — even though they wouldn’t have chosen to go through cancer their first year of marriage — believe it made them stronger,” says Garvey. “They know all the years ahead will be so much better.”
4. Finances and career
Finances and career are often major concerns for young survivors.
“Often, young people haven’t had enough time in their careers to accumulate time off or qualify for short-term disability,” she explains. “Many are single and don’t have a second income to support them if they are unable to work. I know some who have worked through chemotherapy because they couldn’t afford to take time off.”
Garvey recommends asking if your hospital has a patient financial navigator. This person can help you find financial aid and structure a payment plan for your medical bills.
It’s also important to talk with a human resources representative at work if one is available. They can help you navigate time off, working from home, how to talk to your boss and what to tell your coworkers.
Get the support you need
Counseling can be very beneficial for young survivors.
“From a developmental standpoint, young people are dealing with heavy ideas,” says Garvey. “The idea of questioning your own mortality at a young age is difficult. It’s helpful to have someone to support you. It’s not always a conversation young survivors are comfortable having with their mom, boyfriend or group of friends. A counselor can walk that path with you.”
She has also noticed a trend of survivors seeking support on social media.
“I’m always an advocate for discernment when sharing personal information on the internet, but I’ve had several young survivors tell me that the Instagram community has been a huge source of support,” says Garvey.
Strength from the difficult journey
“It’s hard to find the positive in having a cancer diagnosis so young, but people have shared with me that they have gratitude for the perspective the experience has given them and feel as though it will serve them well in their long-term survivorship,” she says.
“There is a lot cancer can take away. But people have told me it changes their perspective of who and what in life is important, and how they want to spend their time. Once we have a recognition of how precious life is, we often make more efficient use of our time. It may mean that at a young age you are going to start seeking the things you really want in life.”
She adds, “Many people, regardless of age, have said, ‘I’ve gone through cancer treatment. I can do anything.’”
Learn more about the support groups and wellness classes offered here at Cancer Wellness.