Young Adults with Cancer and the Importance of Finding Support

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work, Emeritus

SEPTEMBER 04, 2018

Young Adult Group to Start Up at BIDMC

Approximately 60,000 people between the ages of 20 and 39 are diagnosed in the US each year with cancer. More are women than men, and the most common types are breast cancer, lymphomas, leukemia, melanoma, sarcoma, thyroid, testicular and colorectal cancers. Almost 9,000 young adults die from cancer each year.

No matter how old you are at the time of diagnosis, hearing that you have cancer is shocking. Being diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening disease at a younger stage of life is even more so. It is completely unfair to be forced to deal with mortality while your friends are focusing on relationships, marriage, children and/or career choices

A cancer diagnosis throws life into crisis and disarray. Like all new cancer patients, young adults have to meet with numerous doctors, undergo scans and tests, and make decisions about surgery and radiation and chemotherapy. Like all new cancer patients, this is a new and frightening universe without familiar guideposts and companions.

Older cancer patients hear dumb and hurtful remarks sometimes from friends. Younger patients hear them all the time. Their peers have not yet had to contend with many life crises and probably have no empathetic context for understanding. They try to support and help, but truly don’t know what to say. Life has a way of teaching us all how to get through hard times and what is helpful; young people haven’t yet had these teaching moments.

I think of a beloved 30-year-old patient whose friend asked her to accompany her, as a second driver, to pick up a new car a few days after her discharge from the hospital where she had undergone a bone marrow transplant. As her friend chatted about her wish that she could have purchased a more expensive car, my patient worried that she could be leaving her 1- and 3-year-old children motherless. Cancer and young adulthood do not go easily together.

Few people in their 20s or 30s have made all the most important personal and professional life decisions. They may still be in school; they may be hoping to meet a life partner; they may not have had children or even thought much about pregnancy and fertility. Financially, they are not likely to have extensive savings or real estate or sound financial plans for a long future. They may not have life insurance and now can’t purchase it. Financial toxicity is a major problem for many people, but it can be a devastating problem for young people who are new to the work force.

It is hard enough to date and feel lucky in love. It becomes almost impossible with a cancer diagnosis or a cancer history. Feeling damaged and frightened about the future, young people wonder who would ever want them now. If already coupled, they worry about the negative impact on their partner and experience paralyzing fear of leaving their young children. A robust and satisfying sex life may feel like an impossible dream.

As is true for everything in life, it helps a lot to have company. Instead of isolation and feeling and different from one’s peers, it can be emotionally life-saving to be with other young adults facing the same problems. For this reason, BIDMC’s Oncology Social Work group is beginning a new support group for young adults with cancer. If this is your situation, or if you know a young person who is living with cancer, I strongly urge you to join us.

The group will meet at BIDMC every other Wednesday from 4:00-5:30 pm, beginning on September 12. For more information or to register, call:

Barbara Clivio, PhD, LICSW, OSW-C, at 617 667-2450

Kalen Fletcher, LICSW, MPH, is the co-facilitator.

Join the conversation at the BIDMC Cancer Community.