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Tips for Young Adults Navigating the Challenges of Cancer

by Phoebe Souza, LCSW, and Karen Fasciano, PsyD

Photo by Cancer Type

While cancer disrupts life at any age, for young adults, the disruption often occurs while you are still establishing a sense of personal identity and making crucial de­cisions regarding your education, career, and relationships. Before your diagnosis, you were probably making plans for the future, feeling in control, and exploring your newfound independence. However, the emotional burden of cancer may have left you feeling isolated from your peers, vulnerable, dependent, and uncertain about what comes next. Changes in rela­tionships, issues surrounding sexual health and body image, and difficult emotions are common areas of concern for young adults going through cancer treatment, and figuring out how to bal­ance normal life and the demands of cancer can be a challenge.

Most young adults diagnosed with cancer have never had a serious illness. Feeling sick, navigating health insurance options, undergoing scans and blood work, and scheduling countless doctor’s appointments are new experiences, so you’ll probably need a little help. Although moving back home, receiving financial assistance, and asking for help with daily tasks can be difficult – especially if you were enjoying your first taste of independence prior to your diagnosis – you may need to rely more on your parents, your partner, or your friends during this time.

Your needs will change throughout treatment, so open and frequent com­munication with your family and friends is necessary. In many cases, connections between you and your support system will become stronger and more honest. However, you may learn that certain friends or family members are not able to provide the support you need, and instead may actually contribute to your stress.

Author of Article photo

Phoebe Souza

Sexual Health and Body Image
Like their peers, young adults coping with cancer grapple with issues surrounding fertility, sexual function, intimacy, and body image. Consequently, sexual problems and changes in your physical appearance resulting from treatment are particularly distressing. Talk to your doctor about any concerns you may have. Seeking support and information on these issues from your healthcare team, and possibly even from a mental health professional, can help you better cope with the physical and sexual changes brought on by cancer.

Difficult Emotions
As you make your way through diagnosis and treatment, you may experience strong, unpredict­able emotions. Anxiety and sadness are common for young adults dealing with cancer, and the intensity of these feel­ings can be overwhelming. Everyone copes differently, so you’ll need to de­termine which coping strategies work best for you. Coping strategies for dif­ficult emotions might include practicing self-reflection, distracting yourself from anxiety-provoking situations, focusing on the positives in your life, and engaging in relaxation exercises, mindfulness-based practices, or other activities you find pleasurable. You may also benefit from working with a mental health professional.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Karen Fasciano

Peer Support
Peer support is critical for young adults who desire normalcy in the face of illness, as many young adults experience isolation in cancer treatment settings, where there aren’t many fellow survivors in their age group. Since social media and Internet-based communities are staples of young-adult culture, on­line support groups can be a great way to connect with other cancer survivors in your age group. However, you’ll want to err on the side of caution when you log in. You may come across stories from survivors who had negative experiences, which can cause unnecessary anxiety.

While happiness and re­lief are common feelings after treatment, so are a range of conflicting emotions, including gratitude, guilt, grief, anger, sadness, and hope. Survivorship is a transitional time for young adults during which they integrate their new perspec­tives into their future goals. However, young adults often find that they need increased emotional support during this time, sometimes even more so than dur­ing active treatment.

As a young adult with cancer, you’ll face unique challenges and require differ­ent types of support compared to children and older adults with cancer. But with the right tools and support, you can success­fully navigate the challenges of cancer. Cancer may have changed the way you imagined your life would turn out, but you can use this experience as an oppor­tunity to grow and to gain important life skills that will help guide your future.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Phoebe Souza is a social worker in the Department of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, MA, who works with adolescents and young adults with cancer and their families. Dr. Karen Fasciano is an instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, as well as a senior psychologist in the Department of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care and director of the Young Adult Program at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2015.