Young survivors have social difficulties years after cancer diagnosis

Written by Ana Sandoiu

Cancer affects tens of thousands of young people each year. Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be emotionally and socially challenging, particularly for adolescents or young adults, who are already experiencing a range of age-related changes. New research investigates the long-term impact of a cancer diagnosis on young adults.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimate that more than 60,000 young adults in the United States receive a cancer diagnosis each year. In the U.S., cancer is the fourth leading cause of death among adults aged between 20 and 39.

According to the ACS, survival rates among young adults have remained largely the same over the past few years, and progress in treatment and survival has been slower in this age group.

In young adults, as in other age groups, some cancers have a higher survival rate than others. Among teenagers aged between 15 and 19, for instance, around 95 percent of patients with Hodgkin lymphoma or testicular cancer survive for at least 5 years after their initial diagnosis, whereas people with brain tumors have a 65 percent 5-year survival rate.

Because adolescence and young adulthood are transitional phases with difficult social and emotional challenges, being diagnosed with cancer at this stage can be particularly trying.

Previous research has indicated that many young cancer survivors are more likely to develop chronic medical conditions, have an overall poor quality of life, and have less access to quality healthcare.

Additionally, young survivors have also been shown to have more trouble adjusting socially. Some of the difficulties reported include worries about feeling unwell, missing school, and falling behind academically, as well as difficulties continuing the treatment.

Although these studies have pointed to the social challenges this age group face immediately after diagnosis, fewer studies have focused on the psychosocial obstacles that these people face over time.

New research, led by Olga Husson, Ph.D., of the Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands, examines the long-term impact of a cancer diagnosis on the social life of young adults. The findings were published in Cancer.

Around 1 in 3 young cancer survivors report low social functioning

Husson and colleagues asked 141 patients from five U.S. hospitals to answer a survey at the time that they received their first cancer diagnosis, as well as a year and 2 years later. The patients were between 14 and 39 years of age.

The researchers examined the patients’ social life at these points in time, but also looked at the trends in social functioning between these timepoints.

Overall, the study revealed that cancer survivors had lower social functioning than what is considered to be the norm among the general population and people without cancer.

Husson and team found that 1 in 3 young cancer survivors experienced low social functioning at every timepoint studied. Additionally, although social functioning seemed to improve in the first year after the diagnosis, after 2 years it was still worse compared with the general population.

According to the study, these patients were also less likely to receive treatment. The survivors reported increased levels of psychological distress and concerns over the negative impact a cancer diagnosis might have on their finances, body image, career, relationships, and plans for starting a family.

The young survivors were also prone to having more physical symptoms, as well as feeling that they did not get enough social support.

The lead author of the study comments on the significance of the findings:

“Reducing physical symptoms and psychological distress and enhancing social support by interventions in the period after treatment may potentially help these young survivors to better reintegrate into society.”

Olga Husson, Ph.D.

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