A cancer diagnosis is a devastating blow for people of all ages, but presents special challenges for young adults. This period of life is usually a time of transition as they are embarking on journeys such as school, relationships and careers. A cancer diagnosis can bring their lives to a screeching halt in the midst of these new adventures.
According to Abby-Gail Solomons, MSW, AAS Courtelis Center for Psychosocial Oncology UM Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, “Young adults' needs are different because they're now in a unique area of their life. They're now transitioning into independence, trying to navigate work, trying to navigate school, peers, relationships, family life, so with this added layer of being diagnosed and going through treatment, it can become a lot for any young adult, and overwhelming. There's a lot of concerns and fears.”
In 2014, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) produced a moving video series, Cancer Survivorship in Young Adults: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, which featured first-hand accounts from acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) survivors about coping with their diagnosis and treatments, long- and late-term effects of treatments and survivorship.
We recently caught up with some of the survivors from the original videos to produce a new series, Young Adult ALL Survivors: Where Are They Now? Betty, Javier, Jeremy and Stephen joined us once again to share how cancer has impacted their careers, relationships and fertility since our last conversation. While each survivors’ story was unique – common threads ran throughout their experiences.
Here are some highlights from this latest series:
Careers: Each survivor was at a different stage of their career when they were diagnosed, with some even still in school. Betty was just coming off a four-month maternity leave and didn’t have any vacation time left. “Everybody donated their vacation and sick time to pay for my health insurance for six months,” she said. Stephen says he had a similar experience as Betty. “My co-workers, the few that knew what I was going through, they donated time and even some others who didn't know all the details, but they knew I was out, they donated their vacation and sick time and all that and I was able to get an actual salary for a lot of it.”
Jeremy, who was in college when he was diagnosed but was just about to enter the workforce, felt obligated disclose to potential employers that he was still in treatment because he would need to be out of the office at times. He felt "if they find out and they don't want to work with me, then I don't want to work for them."
Javier, who was in middle school when he was diagnosed, says he had no career plans at the time. When he finally entered the work force years later, he was reluctant to discuss his experience until he learned a fellow coworker had breast cancer. “She had a lot of questions,” he recalled. “I guess that's when I opened up and my colleagues found out what I had because at that point no one really knew and luckily that helped me. I was able to help her, point her in the right direction of certain things that I was able to answer certain questions.”
Fertility: For Jeremy, a glitch in the hospital process almost cost him the chance to have a family. “I was in college when I was diagnosed so they actually asked me if I wanted to bank (sperm) before getting chemo, and there was a little bit of logistical issue where they put the chemo in before the person came to do the banking. And legally they couldn't take it then.” Several years later he successfully started a family and now has two children, but he was left with a valuable lesson, “I guess the thing that I learned from it is asking the question upfront and making sure that you're your own advocate.” Fortunately, Betty, Javier and Stephen were all able to fulfill their dreams or starting or expanding their families.
Relationships: All four survivors are currently in loving, supportive relationships and all have children, but unfortunately for Betty, her battle with cancer ended her marriage. “The strain of the cancer treatment, financial issues and burdens that we went through ended our marriage.” While she notes that dating after cancer can be frustrating, Betty found love again. However, because her current partner didn’t live through her cancer experience she finds it difficult at times. “It's hard emotionally sometimes because I wish that he understood,” she notes. “And you can't understand unless you're there.”
To learn more about coping with life after cancer from these brave survivors, please visit www.lls.org/patient-education-videos/young-adult-all-survivors-where-are-they-now.
Any patient, family member or caregiver who is affected by a blood cancer diagnosis is encouraged to contact an LLS Information Specialist who can provide one-on-one assistance throughout cancer treatment, financial and social challenges and give accurate, up-to-date disease, treatment and support information. Our Information Specialists are master's level oncology social workers, nurses and health educators. Click here to contact us.
For information on other LLS resources available to young adults, please visit www.LLS.org/youngadults.