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The challenges facing young people with cancer

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Jenna Langer
Cancer survivor and activist Jenna Langer, 25, was treated in the pediatric BMT unit at Mayo Clinic during her bone marrow transplant in May 2011.
Courtesy Jenna Langer

Being diagnosed with cancer at any age is a terrifying thing, but for young people, a cancer diagnosis can mean falling into a unique treatment limbo. Young adults are often faced with receiving treatment among children in pediatric wards, or with elderly patients in more traditional oncology wards - and neither option addresses the specific needs of a young adult population. 

Last month, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network released the first-ever specific guidelines for treating young people ages 19-40 diagnosed with cancer. The guidelines address "psychosocial needs, lack of insurance, the transitional nature of their lives (including transitioning out of pediatric care in some cases), and treatment compliance," according to Medscape.

Brad Zebrack, a professor of social work at the University of Michigan and the founder of the Cancer Survivorship Research Project, will join The Daily Circuit Thursday to discuss the specific challenges facing young adults and the ways to improve treatment and counseling options.

"How does a doctor talk to a 25-year-old woman about her risks for infertility?" Zebrack said. "How do you talk to a young man about some of the difficulties about having sex, or when the patient just feels so unattractive and just so unsexual and then they're worried it will always be that way. In that pediatric ward, doctors are not even trained to have these conversations. They're not used to dealing with a 25-year-old. In the adult world, because most cancer patients are over the age of 60, the doctors don't talk about reproduction because their patients are past their reproductive years."

Jenna Langer, a 25-year-old cancer survivor and activist from New Ulm, Minn., will also join the discussion. She chose to be treated in a pediatric ward with her previous doctors when she was diagnosed with cancer again as an adult.

"At the end of the day the pediatricians knew me the best," she said. "They'd seen me for seven or eight years;  they'd saved my life before and it was a comfortable thing to do. It was choosing between reading the Berenstain bears or Good Housekeeping in the waiting room and I chose the bears."

Langer attended college shortly after cancer treatment and said it was tough finding a way to integrate into college life.

"Like any other college student you're looking for a  way to define yourself and when you have these outward signs of baldness, of skinniness, it's really hard to define yourself beyond cancer," she said.

KERRI'S TAKEAWAY

Even when young people with cancer are surrounded by their family, doctors and friends, there is a lot of social isolation. If you know someone with cancer, offer to do specific things to help, such as inviting them over to watch a movie or bringing a lasagna.