Of the 70,000 young Americans age 15-39 that are annually diagnosed with cancer in the United States, nearly three of every four receive late stage diagnoses, resulting in reduced survival chances, unnecessary suffering, and the premature death of thousands each year. These late stage diagnoses are often due to the pernicious myth that this age bracket is "too young for cancer," a myth that is perpetuated within communities and medical professionals alike. I experienced this myth beginning at the age of 18.
A cancerous tumor took hold of my thyroid during my freshman year of college that would go undiagnosed for another three-and-a-half years. Almost immediately, I lost fifteen pounds from my already petite physique. I was often fatigued, and caught every cold that swept through campus. I saw various physicians, but my symptoms and declining health were always chalked up to "the stresses of college" and "nothing to worry about." One insensitive doctor attributed my weight loss to an eating disorder, despite my heroic attempts to maintain weight.
Like many other young people, my symptoms were dismissed and my cancer diagnosis was delayed because I was simply "too young" and thus, as one physician explained, not in need of a more thorough workup. When my cancer was finally diagnosed, my tumor had bulged to the size of a golf ball, and was even somewhat visible under the skin of my neck. Luckily, it had not yet begun to metastasize.
The myth that cancer is a disease of the old alienates young cancer patients, who are often the youngest in the chemotherapy room and within their community with the disease. At a time in a young person's development when we most want to fit in with our peer group, this myth isolates young cancer patients and often discourages us from connecting with friends and acquaintances about our condition.
Even when we do try to connect, we bear the burden of having to cope with inexperience and misinformation from our friends and communities, who are not used to the idea of a young person with cancer, and may not know what to say or how to be supportive. Others simply just cannot cope, resulting in further isolation. My college boyfriend, for example, ditched me the first day he saw me after my radiation treatment (good riddance).
Such a myth all to often encourages young cancer survivors to remain silent about our experiences. This is fully understandable. We conceal our cancer histories because we want to nurture the stability and normalcy that cancer unhinged from our lives. Yet we also conceal our experiences because it is assumed that we never should never have had cancer in the first place.
These social challenges, combined with the steep financial burden of cancer, make the disease particularly hard to face at a young age. Young adults are less likely to be insured, and typically have fewer financial assets. Both result in further hardship, especially if they have young families to support. When a young adult receives a late stage diagnosis, their cost of treatment skyrockets at the same time that their ability to work diminishes. Young cancer survivors also face long-term financial obligations, whether it be for screenings, follow-up care, or particular drugs that we may need to take for the rest of our lives. Cancer treatment, especially at a young age, also heightens the susceptibility to other diseases and conditions in survivors as we grow older.
It has been eight years since my cancer went into remission. I was lucky, because my late diagnosis was not late stage. All to often, however, this is the case, something that I recognize acutely as I've watched a dear friend my age bravely fight stage four colon cancer over the past two years.
It is time we debunked the myth that cancer is a disease of the old and became more sensitive to the additional burdens that such a myth places on young people struggling with cancer and young cancer survivors. This would help young cancer patients and survivors know they are not alone, and help friends, colleagues, and medical professionals be more supportive.
Not every young person who arrives in an examination room will have cancer, but debunking this myth would make physicians and medical professionals, who might otherwise ignore the possibility, realize that the young person in front of them has symptoms consistent with cancer. It could also make young people, faced with unexplained symptoms, recognize cancer as a possibility and seek out care earlier.
Everyone wants to believe he is immune to cancer, especially the young. But it is time that we abandoned the false sense of security inherent in the myth that we are too young for cancer. Doing so would lower the rate of late-stage diagnoses, improve outcomes, and create more inclusive and supportive communities for patients and survivors.
No one is too young to have cancer.
A different version of this opinion piece first appeared in the Houston Chronicle, and is available here.