by Anne Katz PhD, RN
Cancer causes major changes in the lives of those directly (you) and indirectly (your family and friends) affected. Those changes can be positive or negative – or sometimes a bit of both. Positive changes for young adults include improved relationships (especially with mothers), becoming more mature and having clearly identified goals and plans, as well as great confidence in taking care of oneself. Negative changes include depression and anxiety, worry about finances and work, and feeling out of control with life.
Many young adults with cancer report having unmet needs for support. These usually change as the person moves along their cancer journey with needs for information about treatment at the beginning, to needs for social support one year after treatment, to needs related to work or school three or more years after treatment. It can be very difficult socially and emotionally for young adults who have never experienced significant health challenges and whose peers are busy getting on with life – it is easy to feel left behind and neglected.
Getting the emotional support you need is important for coping. Cancer survivors tend to have much higher levels of depression and anxiety than the general population. It is important to deal with this because if left untreated, survivors who are depressed do not do as well as those who are not depressed. Anxiety is often related to fear of recurrence and some survivors are so anxious that they neglect their follow up care and do not attend scheduled appointments – this can be a form of avoidance but it is dangerous to your health. Some survivors show signs of post-traumatic stress after treatment; they may be overly vigilant about their body and physical sensations. They may not get good sleep and may over react to questions about their health. They may avoid follow up appointments because going to see the doctor may result in flashbacks about their treatment experience which are unpleasant and scary.
Cancer centres have social workers and psychologists and nurses who can help with emotional responses to cancer. You just have to ask – and you should be assessed for how you are coping at every visit. Support groups can be helpful and there are different types; in person support groups are preferred by some but as a young adult, you may find that you are much younger than the other people in the support group, unless it is a YA-specific group (not always possible especially outside big cities). It can also be hard to see other people who are not coping well with their cancer, emotionally or physically. Support groups for young adults can be very helpful to put you in contact with people who are going through similar experiences to you. It is helpful to be able to talk openly about your challenges and successes especially if you find it hard to talk to your ‘healthy’ friends about what you are going through. Attending a support group can give you an opportunity to help others – and this makes you feel good. You can also learn about new and emerging treatments and you can observe how others in a similar situation are dealing with life after cancer.
There are a number of on-line support groups and organizations targeted at young adults and these may be perfect if you don’t have time to go to in-person support groups, if you live outside a large city, or if you aren’t sure that you will like going to a support group. Here are some suggestions:
· Living Beyond Breast Cancer (has a conference for young women, C4YW, with breast cancer): www.lbbc.org
· Next Step (for those up to 40 years of age with various life-threatening illnesses): www.nextstepnet.org
· Prepare to Live (ages 18–40): www.preparetolive.org
· Stupid Cancer (ages 15–40): www.stupidcancer.org
· Teen Impact (ages 13–30+): www.teenimpactprogram.com
· Teens Living With Cancer (ages 13–22):www.teenslivingwithcancer.org
· Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults (ages 15–35):www.ulmanfund.org
· Vital Options International (ages 18–40): www.vitaloptions.org
· Young Adult Cancer Canada: http://www.youngadultcancer.ca/
Not everyone who goes through cancer has problems – cancer can lead to personal growth. Those who experience this growth report that they find purpose and meaning in life and have a greater appreciation for life itself and for family and friends. Young adults who experience this say that they are more mature than their peers and have improved relationships with loved ones. They also say that they have more empathy for others and a stronger sense of who they are and their place in the world.
While you can’t choose to have cancer or not, you can choose how you respond to the challenges from cancer. You may need to learn how to respond and this is where getting support is helpful as others can show you the way and this can really make a difference to you and to those who love you.
This chapter’s featured YA organization is: