20-something patients often overlooked, says organization

The effects and damage that cancer can wage on an individual are very well known. However, those who can be the most adversely affected by a cancer diagnosis are also the ones who have the least amount of assistance when it comes to dealing with their disease.

“If you’re a pediatric oncologist in a kids hospital, 90 per cent of your patients are under 15 years of age. If you’re an adult oncologist, more than 90 per cent of your patients are over the age of 40. So, the adolescent, young adult population in the cancer world is 10 per cent of everybody’s focus. In other words, we’re nobody’s focus,” says Geoff Eaton, executive director and founder of Young Adult Cancer Canada.

Eaton is also a two-time cancer survivor, being first diagnosed at age 22. Young Adult Cancer Canada was founded as a way to try and make sense of what he describes as being a “very unique and challenging experience.”

He is far from alone. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, 6,800 cases of cancer were diagnosed with young adults aged 20-39 last year, a number which has been increasing steadily since the 1980s.

Despite this, there hasn’t been a lot of attention focused on young adult cancers. Eaton references a 2006 study he conducted that examined eight major granting agencies in Canada that dealt with cancer research.

Of the $76 million spent in 2006, $61,000 was spent on young adult cancer research or 0.08 per cent of the total funds available.

Elissa Bulloch also finds that there is a lack of attention being put forth from the cancer community for young adults.The majority of cancer research has been geared towards children typically under the age of 15 or adults over the age of 40.
Photo courtesy of: Franco Giovanella (http://www.sxc.hu/)

The 29-year-old, terminally ill with brain cancer, has found her experiences mixed.

While Bulloch does find that the hospitals in Calgary do reach out to patients, she finds that at times there’s an impression of being brushed away.

“They’re really quick to put you on antidepressants. I mean, I’ve got cancer, I’m pretty sure I should be sad. Are you trying to make me go away?” she says, chuckling.

“I find that we’re kind of supporting each other if we can find each other. My brain oncologist connected me with a girl, who has the same cancer as me.”

Buteven support from someone with the same cancer sometimes isn’t enough.

“I had a friend named Barry, who was 60. He was this great man, totally happy go lucky. But, I look at him being 60 and me being 30 and it’s different lifestyles, different genders and different ages, yet we’re treated all the same,” says Bulloch.

Dr. Ardythe Taylor is one person who is providing assistance to young adult cancer patients.

“The programming in cancer centres is traditionally more focused to older people because cancer has traditionally been more prevalent in older populations,” says Taylor.

Taylor runs the Breast Cancer Supportive Care Foundation, an organization that assists breast cancer survivors through the recovery process. The foundation offers survivors a three month post-treatment program.

As a result of feedback from young adult survivors who have participated in the program, it offers a group specifically for young adults.

Taylor says that her foundation was created to try and fill in the gaps in the cancer patient system, noting that medical professionals are strapped for time and resources.

“You’re out of sync with your peers. You have this perspective on mortality at a very young age that your peers just aren’t thinking about.”

Cancer patients feel like “they’re thrown into a void, this void where they’ve been really closely cared for in the cancer centre. But the cancer centre, their work is done once the patient is stabilized,” says Taylor.

Unfortunately, the resources simply aren’t in place from the health care field for young adult patients in post-treatment.

“Right now, demand for our programs is far exceeding our ability to supply them,” says Eaton, acknowledging the need to help young adult cancer patients, noting that there were eight local groups for young adult cancer patients nationwide, a number that has shrunk to six.

tpresiloski@cjournal.ca