Facing the Challenges of Cancer as a Young Adult

Facing the Challenges of Cancer as a Young Adult

How You Can Make the Most of Your Time in Treatment

by Helen L. Coons, PhD, ABPP, and Johnathan B. Sataloff

Here you are, 18 to 24 years old. You were in college, graduate school, or your first job and enjoying your independence when cancer hit. Now you’re back at home with your parents, dealing with all the things that accompany a cancer diagnosis. You’re probably feeling out of touch with your goals and struggling to relate to your friends. The following suggestions might help you handle this difficult transition and make the most of your time in treatment.

1. Disclose your diagnosis when you’re ready.

It’s your decision whom you tell about your cancer and when. Right after diagnosis, it’s important to rely on trusted friends and family for support, and not worry about telling everyone at the same time. 

2. Ask for help.

Your newfound independence may be important to you, but it’s difficult to get through cancer treatment alone. Sometimes you may need practical help with everyday tasks like showering, getting dressed, walking, or cleaning a port or PICC line. Other times you may need emotional support. Family members, friends, coworkers, your oncology team, mental health professionals, and even other young adults with cancer can provide support when you need it and will back off when you don’t.

3. Add structure to your day.

Unless you’re recovering from a procedure or your white blood cell counts are down, make a point each day to get out of bed at a regular time, take a shower, and set realistic goals to leave the house. 

4. Keep some familiarity in your life.

If you’re in college, try to continue taking classes on campus or online. Lighten your credit load or take classes that aren’t for credit if necessary. If you have a job, ask if you can work from home or come to the office on a flexible schedule that will allow you to take time off for chemotherapy and work more hours between cycles. If you’re unable to take classes or work even part time, enjoy a hobby, take an art class, or volunteer in your community. This will give you something to focus on other than your cancer, allow you to interact with your peers, and help keep your mind sharp.  

5. Stay physically active, with your doctor’s permission.

Physical activity, particularly aerobic exercise (walking, biking, dancing, using elliptical or rowing machines) decreases stress and anxiety, improves sleep, helps with concentration, and improves body image. Weight lifting, Pilates, and yoga can improve your muscle mass, core strength, balance, and overall well-being. 

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6. Stay connected to friends.

Instead of avoiding friends during cancer treatment, stay in touch through social media, text messages, or video chat if you are unable to hang out in person. 

7. Decide if dating during cancer is right for you.

Some young adults with cancer maintain relationships while others are reluctant to start dating because of treatment-related side effects such as hair loss, fatigue, and decreased sexual energy, as well as worry about disclosing their cancer to a date. Dating during cancer is a personal decision. If you feel ready to date, go for it!

8. Be patient.

Fatigue, trouble concentrating, and frustration with being off track from your goals are normal. Don’t push yourself when your body needs a break. Setting small goals can help you feel productive. Find ways to relax – watch TV shows or movies, read books, exercise, listen to music, write about your experience, or use mindfulness and guided imagery techniques.

9. Make plans for the future.

Cancer gives you a lot of time to think. If you’re in school, use your time in treatment to research future internships, summer programs, or jobs. Finding options that fit your goals gives you something to work toward. If you’re already working, this time can be used for developing a new skill or studying for a new certification. 

10. Try a support group.

Connecting with other young adults with cancer can be reassuring and may reduce feelings of isolation. If you can’t locate a support group in your community, talk to your cancer team about the possibility of starting one yourself. If in-person groups aren’t your thing, try connecting in online chat rooms for young adults with cancer.  

Dr. Helen Coons

Dr. Helen L. Coons is a breast cancer survivor and board-certified clinical health psychologist who has specialized in psychosocial oncology for 30 years. She is the president and clinical director of Women’s Mental Health Associates in Philadelphia, PA.

Jonathan Sataloff

Johnathan Sataloff is a non-Hodgkin lymphoma survivor and a senior pre-med student at Amherst College in Amherst, MA.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2013.