Young Adults With Cancer

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

Getting cancer is awful at any age, but it has to be especially difficult for young adults. They’re too old for the nurturing and specialized pediatric oncology programs, and too young to fit in with the rest of us with cancer who are middle-aged and older.

Do you remember when you were beginning to establish yourself in your career and in your adult relationships? It’s a time of transition in which you leave the protective bubble of your parents and begin to forge your own identify. For many of us, this is a time of fun and excitement, but it’s also a time in which we don’t feel especially grounded. Now imagine throwing cancer into the mix.

There are practical worries like finances. You don’t have savings and you’re likely paying off student loans. You know that the first job or two establishes the foundation for your career path, but you’re off sick for several weeks and you’re struggling just to stay employed. In a tight economy, you worry that you might be the first to be laid off, and you know that getting a new job will be difficult and complicated. Most twenty five year olds don’t need to read the fine print of a company’s health insurance policy or worry about what, if anything, they should say about their medical history.

Navigating personal relationships is just as tricky. You wonder if you need to redefine yourself in light of your cancer diagnosis and losing your hair due to chemotherapy doesn’t help. I recently talked with Leah Shearer of Rochester who was diagnosed with two separate cancers by the age of thirty. She said that dating takes on entirely new dimensions when you’ve had cancer. “If you’re out with someone and he’s sweating the small stuff, you wonder how he’s going to deal with the really big stuff.”

Infertility is another concern because it can be a side effect of some cancer treatments. It’s a difficult loss on its own, and, as Leah points out, “Because it’s one more thing that can be taken away from you.”

“My number one thing is for the medical community to pay attention to us,” Leah told me. “Historically, cancer in our age group hasn’t gotten much attention. And there needs to be a safety net to catch young people who fall through the cracks and feel so isolated.”

Leah’s own safety net came in the form on an organization known as “I’m Too Young for This!” Founded by Matt Zachary, the group provides age-targeted information, resources, and connections to the one million young adults, aged 15-39, who have been affected by cancer. When she first came across its website (, Leah recalled thinking, “Finally, there was something for me.”



Click here to see all of Bob’s columns


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