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Tiffany Williams

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Career, Interrupted: Facing Cancer in Your Twenties

Posted: 01/31/2013 4:02 pm

I was diagnosed with Stage 4A Hodgkin's lymphoma, a relatively uncommon type of blood cancer, on my 27th birthday. As you might guess, I spent the first few days after diagnosis in denial and then the next few days in panic mode. Less than a year before, I had moved to Washington, DC to run a project for trafficked domestic workers. I had moved to DC with the contents of a studio apartment in a U-Haul, social work degree in hand, only knowing two people: my best friend and my boss. At 27, I felt too young to know what to do next, and too old to run back to my parents.

Once I had the first round of chemotherapy, and learned how to manage and plan for the side effects, I felt more in control. I accepted the treatment plan and had faith that it would work. I kept my new job, told my mom I was fine, and still managed to make friends during treatment. By all accounts, on the outside I was the stereotypically "inspirational" patient. Of course on the inside, I was churning with anxiety.

The hardest part during that time was explaining my increasingly visible illness to my social work clients and colleagues. As my hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes started to fall out, it was nearly impossible for me to hide my cancer, which impacted my ability to inspire confidence. I looked sick. Even with a wig on.

I regularly consulted with supervisors to ensure that while I was physically able to continue working, I was also ethically able. I was working with people who were recovering from severe trauma, so I had to be vigilant about knowing my boundaries. When the cancer was out in the open, it took a lot of work to refocus the sessions away from my own issues, even when my well-meaning clients insisted that they check on me (and not the other way around), but we were eventually able to move past it and our work was successful.

When I found out that the chemotherapy wasn't working and I would have to undergo a stem cell transplant, we made arrangements to transfer the remaining clients to partner organizations. It was a heartbreaking experience and one of the hardest ones I've gone through in this whole journey. I felt I had failed. My body had failed. Not only was it another bump in the road for the women I was working with, it also validated one of the most prominent fears I had as a young adult cancer patient: losing my place on my career path.

Young adults face a slew of unique challenges when it comes to cancer -- from dating and sex, to finances, to career interruptions, to the fact that our cure rates haven't caught up with other age groups. We juggle all this while trying to stay alive at the same time.

Fortunately, my stem cell transplant was successful, and two weeks ago I reached my second year of remission, a big milestone in the blood cancer world. While I was undergoing intensive treatment, my employer helped me modify my work plan and I was able to keep my insurance and stay busy working from the hospital while I was recovering. I got additional support from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to help cover co-pays and prescriptions. I was lucky. I made many friends in my age group in online support forums who were applying for Medicaid in their twenties.

Blood cancers are the number one cancers affecting kids, adolescents and young adults. We need better, more-targeted treatments, and programs that will address our needs.

So this March, I am using my voice as an advocate and survivor to raise funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the organization that helped me when I needed it most. They are the largest voluntary cancer research agency specifically focused on finding cures and better treatments for blood cancer patients. I hope that through this Generation Why series on The Huffington Post, the community of young adult bloggers with cancer will be able to paint a picture of our lives, and inspire readers to take action in a variety of ways.

As for me, you can follow my personal journey on my blog or through Facebook.

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