Imagine walking into a room full of people yet you feel alone. This room is not one you choose to walk into; it is literally a matter of life and death. This is a place with phenomenal medical and psychosocial resources yet they aren’t designed for you. The people that fill this room are your parent’s age and in many cases your grandparent’s age. This is a room where you are surrounded by people and yet you are isolated. This is a hollow room.
This is the reality of many young adult cancer survivors and was my reality when I was 18 years old. I remember walking into a world-renowned cancer centre with my Mom and being stared at due to my age. I would sit in the waiting area and look at my feet as people my grandparent’s age would stare over their magazines at me. Due to this, my goal upon setting foot inside was to get out as soon as humanly possible. It reminded me of walking into a party where you know no one and trying to fit in.
I, being the age of “invincibility”, decided that I was emotionally fine with everything that was happening. I was going to walk out the door after 7 years of being treated and be the same guy that walked in – only stronger. This was not the reality as many young adults will tell you; a cancer diagnosis changes you. I realize now that after my second diagnosis at 21 I closed myself off emotionally, protecting myself and my family from any negative feelings I had. Even though I am sure psychosocial support was offered, there was nothing age related that I felt would benefit me. For the most part, the geriatric age group is the majority in a cancer centre and therefore the majority of the resources are aimed at them. Due to the relatively few young adult cancer patients and distinct age gap, these resources do not translate well to my age range and left me with few options. It has taken me many years to get the support I needed and after 5 years of being cancer free I still have instances where I need support.
Although the hollow room has its shortcomings it is not a bad place. I walked into this facility and was greeted with some of the best doctors and nurses in the world. This is a place that truly cared about my wellbeing however they were not equipped to deal with a small population of people with such a distinct set of needs. It seemed strange but leaving this hollow room was incredibly difficult. Although as I mentioned above, I didn’t fit in; this was a facility that saved my life and protected me from dying. For them to relinquish this authority over me and release me into the wild, I again felt isolated and uncertain of the future.
To rectify this problem I needed to look outside hospital walls, outside the hollow room and step outside my comfort zone. It was difficult to be vulnerable and look for support as this meant that I actually had a problem that needed to be fixed. I tried a number of online sites which was really where I began to start fitting in. However, meeting young adult survivors in person was where I truly connected. This connection to other young adults is incredible; a room of complete strangers will immediately bond due to this one commonality. For me, this is really the answer to this problem; literally just get young adults together.
My isolation was the largest emotional stumbling block that I faced. Transitioning into and out of the hollow room meant major changes in my life; changes I wasn’t sure people would accept. As I move further out from my diagnoses, I have learned that connecting with young adults my own age was key to my recovery and my future. I personally believe that we need to find a way to increase young adult connections inside and outside cancer facilities. This will fill the hollow room and decrease the isolation factor so prominent in this age group.
Timothy Buckland is a 27 year old three time testicular cancer survivor. He has his Master’s degree in Biochemistry where he studied pro-growth signalling in breast cancer. He currently works at the Canadian Cancer Society as a Revenue Development Coordinator and Young Adult Cancer specialist.