Why You Should Care About AYA Cancer

Amara Strande, contributor

There are three words we can all agree you never want to hear: “You have cancer.” We all dread the thought of hearing those words coming from a doctor. Most of us at Augsburg have never heard these words before. But a few of us already have, and in the future, many more of us will. As young adults, many of us take our health for granted. Uttering the words “I have cancer” sounds unimaginable.

I was 15 when I was diagnosed with cancer. I was obviously devastated, shocked and in pain. I lost everything and lost my sense of identity. I missed out on more than half of my high school career. I felt like my childhood ended early, but at the same time, I couldn’t begin my adult life. During my treatment at a children’s hospital, I met a 30-year-old man being treated for leukemia. Sounds strange, right? Turns out his cancer is most common in children under ten. The doctors that specialized in his cancer were only in pediatrics and not in adults. This often weird predicament young adults are thrown into is not only awkward, but dangerous for their chance of survival. 

AYAs, or Adolescents and Young Adults, are people with cancer between ages 15 and 39, and they often go overlooked. According to an article from Penn State College of Medicine, the cancer rate in AYAs increased by nearly 30% from 1973 to 2015. Additionally, Teen Cancer America estimates that 89,000 AYAs will be diagnosed a year, accounting for 5% of all cancer diagnoses in the United States. This is about eight times the number of cancers diagnosed in children ages zero to 14 and about five percent of cancers diagnosed in adults 40 years and older. AYAs are also more likely to receive a late diagnosis or misdiagnosis compared to other age groups, and have the lowest participation rate in clinical trials than any other age group. The absence of trials and research is a key factor in the slower rate of survival improvements.

This group of young adults and teenagers with cancer are treated with inadequate care simply because of their age. Even though AYAs have distinct struggles with cancer, we still label and treat 15-year-old cancer patients in pediatrics with babies. Unlike children and older adults, AYAs face different challenges such as missing school, lost career opportunities, dating, discovering one’s sexuality and future reproductive challenges.

Despite being less publicized than pediatric cancer, more AYAs are diagnosed with cancer than children. The increasing number of cases is concerning, and according to Dr. Nicholas Zaorsky, assistant professor of radiation oncology and public health sciences at Penn State, interviewed by the Penn State News, “Cancer is the leading cause of disease-related death in this age group.” The rates of kidney, thyroid, and gastrointestinal cancers keep increasing in this age group in addition to having a disproportionately high death rate; AYAs have the second-highest death rate from cancer in the country behind only people above the age of 70.

So why should you care about AYA cancer? Developments in cancer research are highly politicized and are often best supported by spreading awareness. According to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, only 4% of all federal funding goes towards pediatric cancer research, and less (if hardly any) goes towards AYA cancer research. I believe developments in AYA cancer research will inevitably benefit cancer patients and the entire age group itself. Medicine should be divided into three categories: adult, pediatrics, and AYA. For not only cancer treatment but within all healthcare. 

If you want more information on AYA cancer patients and how you can help, check out OneLessWire, Stupid Cancer, Teen Cancer America, and Elephants and Tea.