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Living with Cancer as a Young Adult: Survivors Share Their Stories

At any stage of life, a cancer diagnosis is unwelcome and unexpected. For the 70,000 adolescents and young adults (AYAs) between the ages of 15-39 diagnosed with cancer in the U.S. each year, it can also be isolating, overwhelming and uniquely complicated.

Even after finishing treatment, young adult survivors may still face education, career and financial setbacks, infertility, social and emotional challenges, and late effects of cancer treatment. Two of the Lurie Cancer Center's young adult survivors, Tina and Lanie, shared their experiences in the following blog posts.

Tina Chip
Kissing Toads and the Road to a Family After Cancer

Hello my name is Tina Chip and I am a two-time cancer survivor. It’s human nature to want to know details — all the details. Who hasn’t seen a pregnant woman and started firing off questions? Is this your first pregnancy? Are you going to find out if it’s a boy or a girl? Or you put your foot in your mouth like I did and ask “When are you due?” and then follow up with “No, really - when is your due date?” No kidding - I actually said that to my real estate agent. I’m not sure why I didn’t stop the first time she said she wasn’t pregnant.

Anyway, here are my stats:
  • Diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at age 16
  • Radiation therapy
  • Went away to college
  • Graduated and started my dream job as a TV journalist
Then number two came around. No, not a baby - cancer. This time breast cancer, followed by chemotherapy and more radiation for good measure.

Now let’s fast forward 27 years. I am 44 (the new 20) and married to my wonderful husband, Greg. We have three beautiful children. (I feel like I am on Wheel of Fortune. You know, when they introduce themselves and say, “My gorgeous husband Tom and I have four amazing children...” Who’s going to say “My pain in the butt husband came with me and my four children won't stop fighting with each other.”)

My life was a roller coaster that included cancer and all the challenges that come with being diagnosed as a young adult. I was single and struggled with dating, intimacy, career, finances and often had questions like, do I tell them I had cancer — and when do I tell them? What will they think of my scars — or do I just leave the lights off and my clothes on? What do I want to be now when I grow up? If I get serious with someone do I tell them I may not be able to have children, or do I lie and put a pillow in my tummy and borrow my friend’s baby??

I can tell you that through trial and error and kissing a lot of toads, I met my prince. We went on the fertility journey together, and through many other health challenges. We knew we would be blessed with children, and now we have three. We explored fertility treatments, egg donation and, ultimately, we were successful in adopting our first child. I was able to carry my last two babies through anonymous embryo donations. I recently spoke with a friend who had cancer and is now starting her own fertility journey. I told her, “You will have a child/children you just don't know the road you’ll be taking to get there.”

Lanie Brewster Quinn
Surviving Stage IV Cancer and Finally Meeting People Who Get It

I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma when I was eighteen years old. I was a freshman in college and pretty naive about the seriousness of my situation. I had the cancer surgically removed and ended up with a wicked scar on my back that I would force my friends to look at. You know when you visit your great aunt, and she tells you about the hernia near her stomach and then lifts her shirt, puts your hand on it and says, “feel that?” I was that gross great aunt. No amount of looking at your mom with pleading eyes, begging her to rescue you was going to keep me from lifting the back of my shirt and shoving my scar in your face. I was a freshman and eager to be noticed.

As I matured, I became a bit more nuanced in how I used my melanoma for attention. When I was in graduate school, most of my peers were either donating blood for good causes or donating plasma for beer money. “I would go with you,” I’d say, “but you know... cancer.” I would keep the cancer card in my pocket to pull out at parties or whenever I was at a loss for conversation. “You know, I wish I could be an organ donor, but, well, the whole cancer thing.” There were so many little ways I could slide it into whatever we were taking about and then soak up all the “you’ve had cancer? Are you okay? You are so brave!” I got all of the social benefits of having a cancer story without any real side effects. There was the scar, but that doesn’t count because I thought it was cool. There’s something beautiful in imperfection -- and it helped that it wasn’t on my face.

What I didn’t know then was that my easy-going cancer experience wouldn’t last. I was somewhat nervous in the first few years after my diagnosis, but after ten years I felt pretty confident that my dance with cancer was in the past. But cancer’s a jerk, and fourteen years after my original diagnosis the melanoma cells started growing again and metastasized throughout my body, and eventually to my brain. I had no idea this could happen after so many years. I didn’t understand how serious melanoma was. I knew to wear sunscreen, and occasionally lectured friends about not using tanning beds -- but otherwise, I hardly ever thought about melanoma. In some ways ignorance was bliss, because I had fourteen years without cancer recurrence anxiety. However, it was hard being blind-sided when the cancer returned.

There is a lot that I wish I’d known going into my second round with cancer, but what I realize now is, more than anything, I wish I had sought out other people going through something similar. I didn’t understand how good it would feel to be in a room full of people that understood things like chemo brain, neuropathy and debilitating fatigue until I went to my first Cancer Connections seminar at the Lurie Cancer Center. That same day I signed up to get more involved, and I ended up speaking on a panel and sharing my story at an event for young adult survivors.

After the panel, I talked with so many survivors from my own age group who were facing similar issues, and had some of the same questions that I had. I walked away from that event inspired and desperate to get more involved with Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) education and events, and to meet others like myself. Being a part of this community has changed my life and given me another support system that I didn’t even know I needed until it was there. I am so glad that I stepped outside of my comfort zone and decided to check out Cancer Connections that day. I went alone knowing that I wouldn’t know anyone there, but being in that room full of survivors felt like being with family. I have no regrets.Back to top