Life Interrupted: When cancer puts life on hold

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Ben O’Clair was a college senior studying for finals when he first felt the twinges of pain in his side. A day later, the 21-year-old was in a hospital learning he had cancer.

He left school immediately, moved back to his mother’s house in Holliston, Mass., and began arduous chemotherapy treatments at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center (DF/BWCC).

Cancer is a disease that affects young adults (ages 18 to 39) much less than older age groups. Less than 10 percent of the total outpatient population seen at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is young adults, about 1,500 per year.

Ben O’Clair was one of them. He has Ewing Sarcoma, a rare cancer in which

Ben O’Clair was 21 when diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma.

tumors form in the bones.

“I had just gotten to the point where I was really thinking about the next steps I was going to take – I was preparing for graduation and interviewing for jobs and internships,” recalls O’Clair, now 24. “I had to stop and put it all on hold.”

And he felt alone.

“I felt like my friends were moving beyond me, and I didn’t have anybody to talk to who understood what I was feeling.”

The Young Adult Program at Dana-Farber (YAP@DFCI) was created for patients like O’Clair.

“We wanted to create a community here among young adult patients so that they knew there were other people going through what they were,” says Karen Fasciano, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and director of YAP@DFCI. “Young adult patients have always gotten great clinical care, but now we have a program that addresses their unique emotional needs.”

Because young adults are right at a point where they are building relationships, careers, and families, Fasciano explains, the need to put on the brakes due to cancer can be particularly difficult. “They are starting to feel in control of their lives, and then they get cancer and have to be dependent again,” she says.

In addition to connecting young adult patients with psychologists and social workers who have expertise treating this age group, Fasciano says YAP@DFCI puts a large emphasis on connecting patients to each other. There is a young adult support group, get-togethers at local museums and on nature hikes, and a password-protected website in which young adult patients can share stories, advice, and make arrangements to meet up after a chemo infusion.

Now in remission from his Ewing Sarcoma, O’Clair has a job working for a nonprofit organization that helps mostly low-income people get access to health care. He’s also on an advisory committee of young survivors helping further develop YAP@DFCI. And his interrupted life is no longer on hold.

The Young Adult Program at DF/BWCC offers a range of resources and support services for adults ages 18 to 34. For more information, contact Rhian Waterberg at 617-632-6819 or yap@dfci.harvard.edu.

One comment

  1. Cynthia Wright says:

    It’s nice to see there is such a program for young adults with cancer.
    I was diagnosed at 30 when I was newly married and wanting to start
    a family. I wish there was something like this then.

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