Young adulthood is shaky ground. The to-do list is enormous: finish school, move out on your own, launch a career, maybe go back to school, manage finances, date, commit, grapple with fertility.
Chances are we all know someone who's been affected by cancer: Half of men and one-third of women in the United States will have it at some point in their lifetime. But when we picture someone with the disease, we don't often see young people in their prime -- in their late teens, 20s and 30s, just starting to really live life.
"You just never think that something like that will happen to me," says Will Reiser, the screenwriter of the 2011 film 50/50, who was diagnosed with cancer at age 25. "We never want to consider the possibility that it's entirely random ... You don't have a clue as to how to deal with it or how to talk about it."
Young adult cancer patients are often lost in a no-man's land between pediatric oncology networks and those targeted toward older adults. And their prognosis is grim: Survival rates have not improved in more than 20 years. Possible reasons? Young people ages 18 to 34 are the least likely group to have health insurance -- they may also be less inclined to see a doctor until something really feels wrong, and those physicians might be hesitant to assume that any given ache, pain or lump is cancer, speculates Bradley Zebrack, Ph.D., associate professor of social work at the University of Michigan, whose current research focuses primarily on adolescents and young adults with cancer. What's more, the biological responses to tumors and chemotherapy are different in a younger body than they are in an older person -- and we haven't seen nearly enough clinical trials targeting this population, he says.
Those who do survive can lose as much as a year or more of life to treatments. And afterward comes what so many of the survivors we spoke to call "The New Normal." Except it's not normal at all.
"It's the time when you become independent and you separate and establish yourself as an individual," says Heidi Adams, the incoming president and CEO of Critical Mass: The Young Adult Cancer Alliance, who was diagnosed with cancer herself at age 26. "And then all of a sudden in many cases you're thrown back into this position of dependence."
The questions start piling up: How do you date? Can you still have children? What about your career? And how are you going to pay the medical bills?
"I just couldn't live my life the way all my friends were," Reiser says.
Today, we're launching a new series on HuffPost Healthy Living called Generation Why, exploring the unique set of issues facing today's young adult cancer patients and survivors.
"It was extremely difficult for me to plan for a future when I knew I may not be there to see it," ovarian cancer survivor Gina Danford told HuffPost's Catherine Pearson for our kickoff piece on considering fertility options.
Over the next several weeks, our reporters and bloggers will be exploring some of the most difficult issues the young adult cancer community grapples with, whether that be building a career while battling cancer or dating while undergoing chemo treatments. Their stories are equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring.
As the movement gains momentum (10 years ago, the newly diagnosed didn't have resources like Stupid Cancer or Critical Mass to turn to), we'd like to do our part.
Are you a young adult cancer patient or survivor? We'd love to hear from you or have you blog -- please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts, feedback and ideas.
For more on Generation Why, click here.
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