What to Know About Young Adults with Cancer

By Dana-Farber Cancer Institute social workers Katelyn MacDougall, MSW, LICSW, and Molly Williamson, MSW, LICSW

Young adults faced with a cancer diagnosis are in a particularly unique position. They may feel stuck, or like they are moving backward while everyone else in their lives is moving forward.

Many are on the precipice of new careers or other exciting changes when they learn they have cancer. In the same vein, the end of treatment also marks an unfamiliar new chapter.

Here are three things to know about being a young adult with cancer—whether you’re one yourself, or whether you know one.

Don’t focus on “end dates”

In the final phases of cancer treatment, there may be a tendency for family members and friends to eagerly put an “end date” on cancer. They tell their loved one, “It’s over,” “you’re done,” and “it’s time to move on,” as if they should be celebrating.

Katelyn MacDougall, MSW, LICSW.
Katelyn MacDougall, MSW, LICSW.

This well-intended language neglects the reality of recovery — its emotional impact, the fear of cancer recurrence, and the new limitations and abilities that come with having undergone treatment. Talking to friends and family openly about the adjustment and reality is the first step in taking control when treatment ends.

The “new normal”

After going through any kind of cancer treatment, trust of your body is different. As a result of cancer therapies, many young adults are still recovering from side effects, and are uncertain if they can keep up. In a culture that too often puts pressure on extensive working hours and productivity, young adult cancer survivors sometimes struggle with re-entering the workplace or school. Since they may no longer “look” like cancer patients, there can be pressure from peers to immediately operate at the same level as they did pre-diagnosis. Many find themselves asking: what does it mean to be “normal” now?

The “new normal” starts with monitoring and adjusting goals to reflect where they stand in the moment. Recovery is both an emotional and physical day-by-day process, full of new opportunities, ups-and-downs, and surprises.

Managing the emotional impact

Learning how to cope with triggers — people, places, events, or dates that are associated with the cancer diagnosis or a difficult time during treatment — is one technique that can be used to manage the emotional impact of the transition. Other patients find solace in helping others through volunteer work. Becoming an advocate for fellow cancer patients can also foster a community of solidarity and can ease the transition for former patients.

Learn more about coping with cancer from the Young Adult Program at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

This blog post was adapted from a Young Adult Cancer Conference workshop on April 7, 2018, hosted by Dana-Farber’s Young Adult Program.