Young Survivors Feel the Effects of Cancer

February 3, 2010 by · Comments Off 

By Kathryn Sharkey

The phone rings. It’s senior Southern Methodist University student Emily Epstein’s sister. Emily holds her breath. Could this be the call she’s been dreading?

Emily’s sister Jessica was 23-years-old when she was diagnosed with an abnormal form of stage three melanoma. One year later, after surviving the melanoma and lymphoma that followed, she’s in remission, but she and her family still feel the effects of cancer.

“Every time I get a call now, I hold my breath because I worry it’s her telling me it’s come back,” Epstein said.

When it comes to cancer, “it’s so much more common than people know, because I don’t think I know anyone that hasn’t been affected by it in some way or another,” said Epstein.

According to the National Cancer Institute, close to 65,600 people between the ages of 15 and 39 were diagnosed with cancer in 2005. NCI states that only homicide, suicide, and unintentional injury claim more lives than cancer. The most common tumors for that age group are breast cancer, lymphoma, germ cell cancer, thyroid carcinoma, sarcoma, cervical carcinoma, leukemia, colorectal cancer, and central nervous system tumors, according to a 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Germ cell cancer includes testicular and ovarian tumors. Sarcoma is cancer of the bone and soft tissue.

Emily and Jessica’s mother took the diagnosis especially hard.

“My mom, sister and I always went to the tanning bed together probably a couple times per week so we all felt personally responsible,” said Epstein.

Emily went with her sister for some of her chemotherapy treatments, including her treatment on Christmas day because it was crucial she didn’t miss a treatment.

She saw many people at the treatment center, but no one quite like her sister.

“The nurses called her the baby because she was the youngest one there,” Epstein said.

The American Cancer Society states that about 77 percent of all cancers are diagnosed in people of age 55 or older.

However, young people are not immune. The NCI says that although leukemia, lymphoma, and central nervous system tumors are more common in those in the younger range of 15 to 39 years old, cervical, colorectal, and particularly breast cancer actually increase in frequency in those between 20 and 39 years old.

Young people have a preconceived notion that nothing harmful will happen to them and that they are invincible, when the reality is that it could happen, said a 21-year-old senior SMU student, studying psychology, sociology, and Spanish. The student did not want her name published for personal reasons.

Young people also face many problems with cancer that older patients do not.

In 2005 to 2006, NCI in a partnership with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, conducted a review of cancer treatment in adolescents and young adults (AYA) to find any needed improvements. The study found that the progress in that area of oncology has suffered because the focus on cancer research and treatment is on older patients.

NCI also states that compared with younger and older age groups, AYAs have experienced little or no improvement in cancer survival rates in more than two decades.

The reasons? NCI says that it may be because AYAs have the highest uninsured rate in the country as well as the medical community’s struggle to recognize and treat cancer in that population. There is a problem with delayed diagnosis, inadequate treatment practices and settings, poor understanding of how the cancer shows up and attacks them, inconsistent treatment and follow-up guidelines, and little call for prevention or early detection methods. In addition to that, there are few clinical trials designed for younger patients and there is low participation in those that do exist. As a result, there is little data gathered to help doctors effectively treat these patients.

As much as cancer is characterized as an older disease, there are many young patients fighting cancer and struggling with the impact it has on their lives.

The 21-year-old psychology, sociology and Spanish student was just ten years old when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

She remembers when her parents had to tell her about her diagnosis.

“They came to my hospital room, brought my favorite stuffed animal, a lollipop, fruit roll ups, and many other sugary snacks to prevent me from worrying,” she said.

She was too young to fully grasp what was happening to her and said she just thought she was different, not suffering from a fatal illness.

She is currently cancer free and said the main thing she has taken away from her experience is not to take health or life for granted.

“My parents are always telling me that life is too short, take in everyday that we are living and seize the moment,” she said. “I’m not a victim of cancer but I am a survivor of cancer. And that only makes me stronger and makes me see things more clearly about life in general.”