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‘Back to normal’ isn’t easy for young cancer survivors

Cancer survivors often talk about wanting to get back to normal, but new research finds that younger survivors may find that difficult for as long as two years after their diagnosis.

“The research is important to help these young survivors better reintegrate into society,” says Brad Zebrack, professor of social work at the University of Michigan and coauthor of a new study in the journal Cancer.

Researchers collected data from 215 cancer patients aged 14 to 39 years who visited five medical facilities nationwide between March 2008 and April 2010. Patients completed a self-report measure of social functioning within the first four months of diagnosis, and again at 12 months and 24 months later. They also answered questions about their social interactions with family and friends, psychological needs, and mental health.

Thirty-two percent of the survivors reported consistently low social functioning over time—and some had been off treatment.

This could stem from the transition from treatment to off-treatment survivorship, a time fraught with new challenges to a cancer survivor, including the negative impact on finances, body image, work plans, relationship with a spouse or a significant other, and plans for having children.

In addition, those reporting low scores on social functioning also had high levels of distress, possibly reflecting an impaired ability to reintegrate into social activities due to the effects of cancer.

“This finding highlights the need to screen, identify, and respond to the needs of high-risk adult-young adolescent patients at the time of diagnosis and then monitor them over time,” Zebrack says. “They are likely the ones most in need of help in managing work, school, and potentially problematic relationships with family members and friends.”

Current research finds young adult cancer patients benefit from support programs that put them in touch with other young adult cancer survivors.

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“They do not find being in a support group with ‘people my grandma’s age’ to be all that helpful,” says Olga Husson, the study’s lead author and a researcher at Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

Other coauthors are from the University of Texas Health Science Center, the Oregon Health and Science University, and HopeLab Foundation.

Source: University of Michigan

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