Why Is It so Hard to Treat Cancer in Young Adults?

More than 1.5 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer every year. The vast majority of those patients will be older adults; that’s a fact, one born out by decades of statistical research. Only 4% of all the cancers diagnosed are found in young adults, patients between the ages of 20 and 39.

Some doctors even dismiss the practical possibility of cancer striking the young, due to its statistical improbability. Just ask Molly McMaster, who was misdiagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome and constipation before learning that her pain was actually being caused by a Stage 2 colorectal cancer.

3 Problems That Stand Between Young Adults & Proper Diagnosis

Even worse? Our ability to fight cancer in young adults isn’t progressing by the leaps and bounds we’ve seen for children and older adults. While “a great deal of progress has been made in treating childhood cancers,” the American Cancer Society reports, “improvements in treatment and survival have been slower in young adults.”

Turns out we’ve already mentioned one of the most significant challenges: young adults with cancer are often kept from adequate treatments by a delayed diagnosis. That makes it extremely hard to destroy cancer cells, which may have already migrated to new organ systems once the right diagnosis is identified. But what delays diagnosis in the first place?

Here are three problems that impact the well-being of young adults every day, healthcare deficiencies that often stand in the way of a cancer diagnosis.

1. Young Adults Get Lost In A Healthcare Gap

Pediatricians specialize in treating patients from birth to the ages of 18 to 21. After that, patients transition to family doctors and general practitioners, experts in the medical conditions affecting older adults.

What happens in the middle, however, during that all-important transition, is often confused and counter-productive.

Health professionals are busy, and facilitating a transition between pediatric and adult health providers requires communication from both ends. In health care, communication is surprisingly hard to come by. One of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare’)s major goals was to limit breakdowns in provider communication, which the Joint Commission lists as the most common cause of sentinel events, unexpected events that lead to death or serious injury.

Young adults need to get used to the idea of becoming their own advocates in healthcare settings, reports the American Academy of Pediatrics. As children, we get used to being asked about our aches and pains. For their part, and to their credit, doctors aren’t willing to rely on a child’s ability to self-report symptoms. Kids get used to responding to a physician’s prompts, rather than monitoring their own bodies for signs of potential illness. That changes when we move to a general practitioner’s office, when physicians become something closer to a sounding board for our complaints.

2. Young Adults Are Most Likely To Be Uninsured

According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, 30% of young adults (a demographic group they don’t explicitly define) are uninsured, even after the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Lack of insurance is major barrier to receiving any health care, let alone the attention of a cancer specialist.

Obamacare extended the age at which young people can be covered under their parents’ insurance to 26. That’s great for about 3 million young adults, but since most uninsured people are poor, many of the parents now allowed to extend their policies to children don’t have insurance themselves.

Even when they can get an appointment, uninsured young adults are far less likely to pursue cancer treatments, which is extremely expensive.

3. Growing Up Is Hard

There are many young cancer patients who clearly understand the severity of their condition, and see the value in seeking treatment. But remember that the human brain only matures around the age of 25. Before that, a person’s frontal lobe, which bears the lion’s share of critical thinking, just isn’t developed yet. That’s not a moral indictment; it’s a physical fact.

Cognitive immaturity can make it extremely difficult to prioritize doctor’s appointments and self-care over other interests. It’s also harder for young adults to conceptualize the future; they’re still ruled to a large extent by the demands of instant gratification, which means a prognosis can seem a lot further away than 5 years.

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