August 30, 2011

‘The Cancer Club’: Do Thyroid Cancer Patients Belong?

By Jackie B-F

Thyroid cancer is referred to as the “good cancer” to have.  Treatment generally involves surgery followed by radioactive iodine, and cure rates for the disease are incredibly high.  After surgery, the only drugs I took were my daily hormones and a lonely round of radioactive iodine.

Less than a month after learning I was in remission, I joined a young adult cancer support group where almost everyone but me had been treated with a stem cell transplant.  My week and a half of radioactive quarantine paled in comparison to their experiences, and I felt that I wasn’t part of “the cancer club.”  I was reminded both how lucky I was and how alone I still felt, even among other young adults with cancer.

Since then, I have become active with a few young adult cancer advocacy and outdoors organizations. Unlike like the support group, participating in these organizations has affirmed my experiences as a thyroid cancer patient.  When other cancer survivors comment, “At least you got the good cancer,” I explain that my experiences haven’t been so easy and no cancer is a “good cancer.”  I went through treatment with co-morbid health issues, poor health insurance, and while living across the country from my family.  When I speak about the quarantine period required with radioactive iodine, other cancer survivors commend me for doing it all alone, and in some ways this is my right of passage into the cancer club.

It was during campfire on a First Descents trip with other young adult cancer patients that I realized my story is worthy of telling.  As I listened to other survivors whose diagnoses covered a wide spectrum, I understood that I shared in their stories.  On the most basic level, young adults with cancer know something that our non-cancer friends do not.  Many of us know what it’s like to live in a hospital, to battle insurance, and to feel isolated by a diagnosis.  Thyroid cancer patients are no different in that we too may fear recurrence, feel lonely, and are unsure about the future.  At the end of the day, regardless of our cancer type, we are all still young adults with cancer and this community is too small to have any outsiders.

For thyroid cancer patients, do you feel like a member of the ‘cancer club’?  If you have another cancer diagnosis, have you ever felt like an outsider in the young adult cancer community?

Read about life with thyroid cancer in Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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October 08, 2009

Are You Welcome in the Cancer Club?

aloha

“Are you going to write in your book about the people who died?  It is so depressing,” a person in the publishing world asked while I was writing Everything Changes.  My answer: a polite version of “You better f***ing believe I am.”

How could I write a book about cancer and exclude the people who died and their families?  Yep, it has its sad moments, but that’s why cancer sucks.  That’s why we raise money for research.  That’s why I write a blog and wrote a book, and promote young adult cancer organizations: all so we can support each other around the pissy hard times.

Charissa is an recent widow who I’ve become friends with.  She is an incredible woman who I adore.  (See her recent post Mourning As A Young Adult?)  And I love my regular communication with a few different patients who are end-stage.  The death aspect of other people’s cancer experiences does not freak me out.  I don’t know why.

There are,  however, many young patients barreling through illness who do choose to steer clear of relationships with end-stage patients and grieving partners.  I do not judge these patients for giving a cold shoulder to death and hence a brush off to other patients and families facing it. The need to cocoon yourself from death when you are a young adult trying so hard to live does make sense to me.  Plus, I have papillary thyroid cancer – a disease from which very, very few people die, so I’m never faced with the question of communicating with someone who is dying from my disease.  Maybe it would make a difference to me… maybe not..

But let’s look at the other part of the equation: The patients and families who are facing death.  They’re still part of our community.  Cancer doesn’t end when you stop taking chemo.  Cancer doesn’t end when you enroll in hospice.  Cancer doesn’t end when your partner, who had lymphoma, has been dead for nine months.

Yet, I talk regularly to end-stage patients and grieving families who say they feel unwelcome in the young adult cancer world, from seemingly simple conversations where patients insist that everyone is a survivor and nobody is a victim, to feeling unable to express their fears of dying or phases of mourning in chat rooms, at conferences, and in support groups.  That stinks.  And it needs to change.

Have you ever avoided dying patients because they feel unhopeful to your own survival?  If you’re end-stage, have you found support in the young adult cancer world and what do you want that you aren’t getting?  If you are grieving, do you want to stay connected to the cancer community and how have you been received?

Read Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.  Spoiler alert: most of the people are still living but not all of ‘em.

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June 12, 2009

Widening Your Cozy Cancer Community?

Being a freak in the dating world, wondering how long our futures will last, wresting with fertility, interrupting our work lives, our school lives.  Young adult cancer patients aren’t the only ones who get to lay claim to this nasty package of dilemmas.

I get incredible emails from patients who have read this blog and my book Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s. These emails are not just from cancer patients but people who are living with cystic fibrosis, endometriosis, multiple sclerosis, diabetes. Our diseases are so different, but the similarities of our lives are astounding.

Yesterday, on the New York Times Well Blog, Tara Parker Pope had an incredible slide show called Voices of Cystic Fibrosis. Check it out. It reminded me how much I can learn by expanding beyond the little shell of the cancer community.

There are other people out there our own age who get what it means to be a virgin because nobody wants to sleep with the sick girl, or who understand all too well how to tactfully enlighten employers about the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It makes me wonder if we limit ourselves too much by hanging out in the comfy cancer world. A lot of young cancer patients live in small towns where there are no cancer happy hours. So what if you go have a beer with the guy at school who has diabetes? A lot of us are struggling with health insurance or medical debt. So would young adults have more political power to advocate for change if we hooked up with other disease advocacy groups?

Do you read this blog and have a disease that is not cancer?  If you are a cancer patient, have you connected with other young adults who have different diseases?  What was it like?  What do you think about opening up happy hours, support groups, radio shows, and other young adult programming to people who are survivors of diseases other than cancer? Or, am I getting too kumbaya? (I have obsessively been watching the I’d like to buy the world a coke commercial lately).

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February 23, 2009

LGBT Young Adult Cancer

Odd One Out
When I was diagnosed with cancer, I lived in San Francisco.  I attended a young adult cancer support group with my great friend and co-cancer patient conspirator Seth Eisen.  Even in San Francisco, queer capital of the world, Seth was the only gay man in our support group.

A few years later, I interviewed Seth for my book Everything Changes.  I hunted endlessly for LGBT support services and advice specific to 20 and 30-somethings to include in a resource section that followed Seth’s chapter.  I turned up zilch.  To write this section, I grilled advocates at major LGBT healthcare organizations on issues that they had never thought about before: the difference between being young and old with cancer.  I’m a married straight woman and was stumping the LGBT community. Something is wrong with this picture.

The only way we will expand support of underserved segments of the young adult cancer community is by striking up good dialogue.  Listen and call in tonight to the Stupid Cancer Show, 9 PM EST when Matthew Zachary and I will be talking with Darryl Mitteldorf about young adult LGBT cancer issues.  

Whether you are gay or straight, what kinds of questions would you ask Darryl on the show tonight?  If you are an LGBTYACP, what are some of the biggest barriers you face as a young adult patient?  Do you feel comfortable being out in the medical environment?

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