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Young Adult Cancer: Year in Review

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Deep in the South Platte River basin rests an oasis of thin air, and sharp-passing quarterbacks. It's only 2:30 in the afternoon but the mid-December shadows are already long, pronounced and stretched across the Denver cityscape. Although the darkest day, the winter solstice has just passed, until recent days it's been an unseasonably warm month, almost alarmingly so, in the Mile High City. Sixty degrees one day, 63 the next, 54 the next. Sitting in a generic hotel coffee shop, not so different from the one you might find yourself in on a lazy Sunday afternoon, is where I find myself. Swirling in my system is a fresh dose of chemotherapy designed to keep my pesky tumor in check, a plethora of prescription drugs designed to counteract the side effects of the drugs designed to save my life, and of course a passion fruit Arnold Palmer.

Whenever the end of the year approaches I like to reflect on the previous year and look forward to the year approaching. What did I like, what didn't I like? What needs to change, what needs to stay the same? And seeing as I'm temporarily (or possibly permanently -- call me, Arianna) writing on the Huffington Post about young adults with cancer, let's examine the state of young adults with cancer.

America as a whole 'seems' to have a pretty solid social consciousness and responsibility towards cancer -- as evident by October and its nauseating dedication (read: marketing) to curing breast cancer (read: selling pink things in the hope of appealing to women). Although there seems to be a lot of going on for breast cancer, things aren't as cut and clear for the rest of the cancer world in America, especially for the young adult cancer community.

A couple of the biggest problems facing the young adult world:

Lack of Health Insurance

No group is as underinsured as young adults. With 23.4 percent of young adults age 18-25 without insurance (a number that is down around 5 percent since Obamacare went into effect) that means that more than seven million 18-to-25-year-olds don't have insurance right now! Going through the post-college, pre-career transition time, many young adults find themselves left without health insurance (and possibly working as a barista). The out of the ordinary ache or pain that would usually land them in the doctor's office instead leads them to self-diagnoses on WebMD, or the always effective and popular anti-cancer treatment: denial!

"I'm sure it's nothing, if it continues to get worse I'll get it checked out" is the sentiment often muttered to concerned friends when what they really mean is "There's no way in hell I can afford a $400 doctor's appointment when it might not be that bad." So instead of catching the cancer early it goes undiagnosed for far too long. This, among other things, leads to a very unimpressive survival rate for young adults.

Fertility

Alarmingly enough, when you throw an almost lethal amount of drugs into someone with the sole purpose of destruction, it leaves your downstairs parts a bit flustered. When I was first diagnosed at 16, the last thing on my mind was my future children.

Many young adults find themselves in similar situations when they're first diagnosed. Overnight you're expected to know an entire field of medicine and the choices you make at this juncture can have lasting and permanent effects. No pressure, right? Fertility issues are often the first to slip through the cracks (right after Chinese or Mexican for dinner). Men who've had cancer are 23 percent less likely to father a child. The best way to combat these alarmningly high numbers is to raise awareness. Perhaps the fact that it's an awkward topic leads to these numbers. But don't be afraid to have that awkward conversation with your pal.

Research and Survival Rates

If you look at the money over the years that have been poured into breast cancer, colon cancer, and leukemia, it's no wonder why the survival rates have skyrocketed for many adult cancers. The average adult cancer patient has a 10-year survival rate of 45.2 percent, which is up substantially from 23.7 percent in the 1970s. It's painfully obvious when you see the dearth of research dollars spent towards young adult cancers why the survival rates have barely changed in the past 30 years. Of the 20 types of cancers that affect young adults, only eight have improved since 1985. This is a trend which unfortunately has seeped into the pediatric cancer world as well, the nation's largest cancer organization the American Cancer Society only directs 1 percent of funding to pediatric cancer research. There aren't enough people advocating and voting for the research dollars to be spent here -- and that's where the problem lies.

The current situation of the young adult cancer world may look grim, but let's take a look at the glass half full. With the continued implementation of Obamacare, we should see fewer young adults without health insurance, which may boost the survival rate. With more young adults surviving cancer, that means more will give back and raise awareness as well as money for cancer research. There are more and more charities being formed that are dedicated to advocating for young adults.

Americans have shown that they're willing to give to cancer as long as it's marketed right. There are a lot of opportunities for 2013 in the young adult cancer world. It's time for us all to get involved in them. If I've learned anything about charity events there are always free T-shirts and cute 20-somethings with a nice social conscious on them.

So run that 5k, buy the overpriced wine bundle at the silent auction, and grow that mustache.

Young adult cancer's not gonna cure itself.

Happy New Year.

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