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from left to right: Olivia Marquart, Jason Greenspan, Sonja Wagner (in yellow), Brianne Kennedy-Brooks (in yellow), Shannon Shepard

The first week of April is Adolescent & Young Adult Cancer Awareness Week – which is a big deal around here! To commemorate this special occasion, we have interviewed several members of our community. Each has been affected by this illness and has faced the diagnosis with grace. Below is a compilation of their answers, which paints a broad picture of what young adults facing cancer experience. This is part one of a three part series.  

“Cancer was something that happened to older people who had lived their lives already and were on their way out. Cancer wasn’t something that should happen to someone who was young, healthy and had so many plans ahead.”

Every year 70,000 young adults are diagnosed with cancer. That’s a big number – a really big number. And still, one of the biggest hurdles young adults with this disease face are feelings of isolation. While it isn’t uncommon, unfortunately, to know someone in their 50s, 60s or 70s with cancer, it is a different story for those under the age of 40. When it comes to finding peers to relate to, young adults with this illness struggle.

Q: How old were you when you were diagnosed? Before your diagnosis did you know anyone your age with cancer?

Christa Bennet: I was twenty-four, turning 25. Before being diagnosed I didn’t know anyone, personally, with cancer.

Gino DeFilippo: I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia when I was sixteen in 2012. At the time I didn’t know anyone with cancer. I just kind of thought it was something that happened when you got older and there was no possibility for anyone active and healthy at my age. I knew of a few people who had cancer as a kid, but no one that had it as a teenager.

Sonja Wagner: I was nineteen years old and a sophomore in college. I had never met anyone my age who was suffering from cancer.

Brianne Kennedy-Brooks: I was diagnosed at the age of 30, with no family history, no risk factors, no warning signs…nothing. I was a rule-follower when it came to my health in every aspect. I was a girl who did everything right and never in a million years thought it could happen to me. Cancer was something that happened to older people who had lived their lives already and were on their way out. Cancer wasn’t something that should happen to someone who was young, healthy and had so many plans ahead.

Jason Greenspan: I was 18 years old when I was diagnosed with Testicular Cancer. I was diagnosed right before my Senior prom and graduation. I did not know anyone my age at the time that had cancer.

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Olivia Marquart

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Jason Greenspan

“When I was diagnosed, some friends were paralyzed with fear. Some sprang into immediate action. Others looked at me like they didn’t know me any more.”

Finding a reliable network of peers can be difficult for young adults facing cancer. When turning to friends who have no prior experience with a cancer diagnosis, support can be mixed at best.

Q: How did your friends/peers react to your diagnosis? And how did they react to the side effects of your treatment?

Olivia Marquart: Everyone reacted in their own way when they found out about my diagnosis. I had friends who heard my news and immediately offered their support. They were willing to help in any way. My friends understood when I was tired or couldn’t do much. They were more than willing to come visit or watch movies when I was on the couch resting. I also had people who heard my diagnosis and cut me out of their lives. They stopped talking to me and acted as if my diagnosis was an issue that wasn’t their problem.

Shannon Shepard: When I first told my friends I was diagnosed with cancer, they were sad and scared. They would keep in touch all the time. When I started having side effects and going through several complications, they started to drift away and not keep in touch.

James Berry: My friends and peers were super supportive of me during the time leading up to my surgery and during my year of treatment on interferon. They continued to invite me to everything and treat me like they always did. My family and friends are what got me through my treatment and I can’t thank them enough. The side effects from my treatment were flu like symptoms, like fatigue, nausea, and extremely sore joints. Also my hair began to thin and fall out, and in hindsight I should have just cut my losses and shaved my head but losing my hair would actually make me look like a cancer patient. Fortunately my balding head didn’t effect the way my friends treated me throughout the year.

Jennifer McRobbie: When I was diagnosed, some friends were paralyzed with fear. Some sprang into immediate action. Others looked at me like they didn’t know me any more. But, I can’t blame them. I didn’t really know myself any more either.

During treatment, I think people were surprised that I didn’t look *more* terrible. So, there was a lot of surprise that I was out and about.  I chose not to wear scarves or a wig when I lost my hair.  So, I just traipsed around bald. It was an issue of “owning it” for me.  But, my openness about it all might have made it harder on some of my friends. I mean, it’s hard to ignore when the symptoms are right in your face. Most of my friends were great about it and never showed that they were uncomfortable – even if they were.

Kelsey Barbour: Initially, I think we were all pretty shocked. In college, we tend to think we are invincible and our biggest challenge is getting out of bed for an 8 AM class. But I think being diagnosed with cancer really made me and even my friends take a step back. However, right from the start, everyone was so incredibly supportive of me and my family.

Melinda Hood: My friends and peers were in shock at first.  [But] overall, they were amazingly loving and supportive.  A friend who came over the night I found out brought a bottle of booze.  We talked and drank most of the night.  My main side effects were menopause, because my ovaries were removed, and the physical effects of the surgery.  My friends and my work were extremely understanding and accommodating.  “Need a nap in the middle of the work day?”, sure there’s the couch. “Pajama bottoms more comfortable to wear to work after surgery than regular pants?”, no problem!

This is part one of a three part series. To be part of the conversation stay connected with us on facebook or twitter. Help spread awareness about Adolescent & Young Adult Cancer by sharing this post with family and friends! Cancer Changes Lives…So Do We!