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They’re young. They should be focused on school, hanging out with friends, falling in love, launching a career or even planning to start a family. Instead, adolescents and young adults diagnosed with cancer find themselves facing a different set of priorities. And often, those obstacles make it hard for them to relate to their peers.

“I felt so isolated and alone,” one young cancer survivor shared as part of a preliminary study led by Laura Oswald, PhD, a member of the Health Outcomes and Behavior Program at Moffitt Cancer Center. The study was focused on taking an evidence-based intervention that had shown success in older adult cancer survivors and tailoring it to the needs of adolescent and young adult cancer survivors.

Adolescent and young adult cancer survivors are defined as those ages 15 to 39. This population faces unique challenges during survivorship and has differing definitions of quality of life compared with childhood cancer survivors and older cancer survivors. Oswald is discussing these unique considerations, as well as her research into interventions for adolescent and young adult survivors, during a breakout session on April 7 at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting.

“When you think about it, there’s a lot of developmental things that define this age range,” she explained. “When you’re 18 years old, you’re young. You might still be in high school. You’re figuring out who you are. Being diagnosed with cancer during that age range can really affect the trajectory of how you develop as a person, and different milestones that characterize young adulthood can be delayed. People have to sometimes make decisions about school or work or family building during that age range because of cancer, which can have a significant impact on their quality of life.”

Oswald’s pilot study, funded by an American Cancer Society Institutional Research Grant via Moffitt, worked to improve quality of life and connect adolescent and young adult survivors. The study involved adapting a 10-week group intervention using cognitive behavioral therapy to help with stress management. The group of young survivors met each week over video conference, where a facilitator led them through a workbook, directed conversations and helped participants work through the skills they were learning.   

“One of the aspects of the intervention that was really important to young adult participants was that they got the opportunity to meet other young adult cancer survivors,” Oswald explained. “Young adult survivorship can be so isolating because young adults don’t necessarily have peers in their life who know what they’re going through. So this opportunity to connect with other young adults who do know what they’re going through or what they’ve been through is a really powerful thing.”

The pilot study proved to be a success, and Oswald continues to study interventions for improving quality of life for younger patients. She notes the overall uptick in research into adolescent and young adult cancer survivorship over the past several years, as well as the need to continue advocating for these young survivors.

“Young adult cancer survivors are a specific population that have different needs than older and pediatric cancer survivors. What we find is that when we focus on young adults separately from older adults, rather than lumping them together in studies, sometimes their outcomes look very different. So it is important to look at them as a separate population,” she said. “This point is starting to be more well recognized. But we’re definitely not out of the woods.”