Emily’s family: Fiona, Emily, Dan and Colm.
It’s a strange experience to walk into a cancer center when you are nine months pregnant. The afternoon I arrived, most people probably looked at my large belly and assumed I was visiting my mother. Instead I had come for my first oncology consult after a biopsy confirmed the lump in my breast was not a clogged milk duct but cancer.
Settling into the waiting area with my husband, I looked around the room and realized most of the other patients were 30 or 40 years older than I was. I couldn’t help thinking: “I’m too young for this!”
There is never a good time to get cancer—it’s wrenching no matter how old we are—but a diagnosis in our twenties or thirties brings unique challenges. Young adults are just launching into the world, defining our professional identities, building relationships, starting families. Cancer is not part of the plan, and when it intrudes upon our barely formed lives, it’s profoundly isolating.
I started treatment ten days after I delivered a beautiful baby boy. The survivors I met at the cancer center were kind and supportive, yet I couldn’t fully relate to them. Many shared photos of their grandchildren and talked about early retirement. One breezily told me I shouldn’t worry about chemo-induced menopause because it wasn’t as bad as people thought. At the age of 32, I didn’t feel equipped to assess hot flashes.
|Looking for a Support Group?
Cancer should not be a lonely experience. Fortunately, there are dozens of support groups locally, and hundreds more nationally aimed at helping cancer patients and survivors get information, comfort, and hope. If you’re a young person looking for others like yourself, check out the links below:
See also the Support Groups page on the SCCA website. It’s a good place to start no matter what type of group you’re looking for.
I often felt just as out of sync with my friends. While they were attending Mommy & Me classes or wrapping up maternity leaves, I was busy with scans and steroids. I lay awake at night wondering if the pain in my back was from the Baby Bjorn or a tumor. I looked at my son and feared I wouldn’t live to see him enter kindergarten. My friends meant well, but how could they understand this? They would have known how to comfort me through infertility or divorce, but cancer just wasn’t on their radar yet.
Halfway through chemo, my oncologist told me about a new support group for young women with breast cancer. As I walked into the first session and saw eight youthful faces looking back at me, I was flooded with relief. Here were women my own age fluent in the language of low blood counts and fears of recurrence. They talked about cancer robbing our youthful faith in our bodies. And they never winced when the conversation turned dark or gory. They got it.
I am deeply grateful to my oncologist for steering me toward this group. I realized that the best cure for isolation is having our experience reflected around us. For young survivors, that can include going to meet-ups, finding books about young adults in the cancer center’s library, or simply seeing young faces in the center’s online presence. Because in the midst of chemo and clueless friends, one of the most important things we can hear is: “You are not alone.”
Emily Cousins was diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer in 2002 at the age of 32 while living in New York City. She lives in Seattle now and works in strategic communications for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Her favorite thing to do is spend time with her husband, son and the daughter she was fortunate to have after treatment. Cousins receives her follow-up care at SCCA and serves as a SCCA Patient and Family Advisor.