Teenaged cancer patients need to know there’s more to life than the hospital

CLEVELAND –Being a teenager is hard enough. Add in a cancer diagnosis, and an already-difficult time can feel unbearable.

Three doctors at an Association of Health Care Journalists conference panel in April agreed that many teenagers need more psychological support than they’re currently getting during cancer treatment.

“Mental health is absolutely the most critical need for this age group,” said Dr. John Letterio of treating teenagers with cancer.

Letterio was joined by two other oncologists at the panel on April 10, 2016 called “Cancer care tailored to teens and young adults.” The three doctors looked at different ways cancer treatment affects young people.

Working with the Angie Fowler Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Institute, Letterio helps hospitals become more welcoming for teenagers specifically. Many young adults are treated in pediatric hospitals, which Letterio said is associated with 15 to 20 percent higher survival rates, although it is not clear why.

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During chemotherapy, some patients have catheters inserted into their arms for the duration of treatment. Photo by Rhoda Baer/National Cancer Institute

However, he said the brightly-colored, cartoonish decorations at many pediatric hospitals aren’t appealing to teenagers. He tries to make sections of the hospital specifically for them.

He said it’s important to treat teenage cancer patients in the same time and place, so they can meet and talk together. The Angie Fowler Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Institute emphasizes helping young people with cancer get to know each other, so they feel less alone.

Dr. Peter Anderson is an oncologist who specifically works on osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer common in adolescents.

Recently, he helped organize a prom-like event for patients at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, where he works, with Akron Children’s Hospital and University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital. The event helped teenagers with cancer get to know each other and think about something other than their diagnosis and treatment for a while.

He works to remind his teenaged patients that they have lives outside of cancer. To combat the emotional turmoil many of his patients face, he’ll send them links to college scholarships or recommend funny books to read during treatment. The teenage years can bring lower self-esteem and more emotional angst, and cancer diagnosis and treatment can increase that.

“[The patients] are coming into their own, trying to find an identity,” Letterio said. “Throw in a cancer diagnosis, and their risk for depression skyrockets,”

Combatting the negative psychological effects of cancer is a big task, but Anderson said it starts with reminding patients they’re still individuals with their own choices to make.

“When I admit people to the hospital, I’ll tell them, ‘You’re allowed to rearrange the furniture,’” he said.

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