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Adolescents, Young Adults with Cancer

10/26/2017

Helping to Care for the Youngest Warriors

By Bernard S. Little
WRNMMMC Command Communications

In March, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Raven Thomas, 21, was diagnosed with Stage 3 Burkitt leukemia, a cancer that may start in the lymph nodes as Burkitt lymphoma and then spread to the blood and bone marrow, or it may start in the blood and bone marrow without involvement of the lymph nodes.
The young Sailor said she had been experiencing hot flashes and pain through her legs, which led her to the hospital.
“Scared,” Thomas said was her reaction upon finding out her diagnosis. “I didn’t want to leave my new home overseas. I wanted my parents more than anything.”
Thomas received six months of chemotherapy at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and said the most challenging aspect of her treatment was “the adjustment to being in a hospital constantly,” and relying on others to take care of her.
“My parents had to leave their jobs for periods of time, and it was a very hard adjustment for my entire family. We had more support than anything in the world by our family,” Thomas added.
Since July, Thomas’ cancer has been in remission. “I’m doing great, feeling strong and determined,” said the Fairhope, Alabama native.
“I was very lucky in my remission and will be returning to active duty in the next few months,” added Thomas, a military police.
“The best thing to do with something like this is to take it day by day,” Thomas continued. “The hard times will come and go but they will always end. Stick to your family and keep your support system close because they are the biggest impact on recovery or dealing with treatment. Crying and being emotional is a normal feeling and letting it out is a relieving feeling, and it needs to be done more than usual.
“If there is anything I would say about my experience so far [is] I had the absolute best doctors in the world,” Thomas continued. “They have been so personable and dedicated to me and my family and made us feel like more than patients. I have been so blessed in my journey through the last six months and I wouldn't change what happened. This is a new chapter in my book of life and it has shaped me into the person I am today.”
According to the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute, approximately 70,000 young people, ages 15-39 are diagnosed with cancer in the United States, accounting for about 5 percent of cancer diagnoses in the United States. This is about six times the number of cancers diagnosed in children ages 0-14.
“Young adults are more likely than either younger children or older adults to be diagnosed with certain cancers, such as Hodgkin lymphoma, melanoma, testicular cancer, thyroid cancer and sarcomas. However, the incidence of specific cancer types varies according to age. Leukemia, lymphoma, testicular cancer, and thyroid cancer are the most common cancers among 15-24-year-olds. Among 25-39-year-olds, breast cancer and melanoma are the most common. Cancer is the leading cause of disease-related death in the adolescent and young adult (AYA) population. Among AYAs, only accidents, suicide, and homicide claimed more lives than cancer in 2011.
Stacee Springer, a licensed clinical social worker at WRNMMC who provides individual and family supportive counseling for children, adolescent and young adults as well as their family members who have been diagnosed with a childhood type of cancer, pointed out that September is annual observed as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
 “The word cancer in the past almost was certain death.  Today, survivorship begins at diagnosis and continues through and beyond treatment. Survivorship infiltrates every aspect of your life after diagnosis.  We now know the importance of the ‘whole person,’ not just a medical disease.  Survivorship addresses the emotional, social, educational and spiritual being.  Siblings can’t be forgotten either.  Patient-family centered care is the standard of care excellence,” explained Springer, who also provides patient and parent education regarding advanced care planning, which addresses advanced directives, guardianship and power of attorney. 
Springer added only 4 percent of all cancer funding is earmarked for childhood cancer research, and in the past 20 years, only three new pediatric cancer specific drugs have been developed. “Childhood cancer drugs aren’t very profitable for pharmaceutical companies,” she quoted one foundation focused on improving childhood cancer treatment as stating.
In working with WRNMMC patients and their families facing challenges, Springer stated a rewarding aspect of her job is, “Being able to be taught by the kids and their families about their cancer.  I am allowed into their private worlds where they teach me about what is important and how to be very courageous.  I am honored to be given this privilege.
“I believe that if a child can maintain being a child and be kept in a routine, they tend to do much better in regard to coping and adaptive behaviors,” Springer added in regards to a child diagnosed with cancer. “They have told me as long as they can do the things that they did before, like playing baseball or go to the mall, it wasn’t too bad.  They have said, ‘I don’t like having to answer a lot of questions about my cancer.’ It’s also important [they] be with their friends because it gives them a sense of normalcy that their cancer does not.”
Springer said parents with children diagnosed with cancer should be receptive to help and education. “They should do a lot of research and educate themselves on resources, what their support team is and allow their community to help, such as mowing the lawn, getting a sibling off the school bus, making meals, gas cards [and other assistance].”
For more information about individual and family supportive services for children, adolescent and young adults as well as their family members who have been diagnosed with a childhood type of cancer at WRNMMC, contact Stacee Springer at 301-319-7943 or Stacee.a.springer.civ@mail.mil.