Donna Calvano found solace in support groups as she was being treated for breast cancer. The sessions were helpful, her new friends caring. She felt for the women who had surgery, and shared faith during Christian meetings.
But an age difference dulled the connections. Everyone else was older--and married. At 36, she was single. They had lived long lives. She was just getting started.
“I didn’t feel like I could relate to the people,” the Fullerton secretary explained. “I was the youngest person there. They are all my friends, but we had different issues.”
So Calvano, who has been recovering since surgery in August, recently suggested that Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center start a support group for young adults.
The hospital last week launched a half-dozen trial sessions that emphasize providing support and information for cancer patients in their 20s and 30s. Part symposium, part rap session, it’s believed to be the only regular gathering in Orange County open just to young adults who have or have had cancer.
“For some of them it was the first time they got to meet and talk to another person their age that had cancer,” said Helen Franco, a graduate student in social work at USC’s Irvine campus who leads the support group’s discussions and activities.
Two faces typically are seen in cancer wards: children and older folks, not always comforting for young adults who already feel alienated by their illness.
“All of a sudden they realize, ‘Geez, I am not this strange person,’ ” Franco said. “They realize ‘There’s other young people who are going through the same thing I am.’ ”
The pilot meeting focused mostly on providing information, rather than discussing individual situations. Knowledge, growing with each medical advance, is what patients and survivors covet most as they struggle to get and stay healthy and stave off recurrences.
“It’s a support group, but it has a very strong educational component,” Franco said, adding that research shows cancer patients are more likely to turn out for meetings where valuable information is provided.
Twelve young men and women between the ages of 20 and 40 attended the first meeting. If the group is successful, it may continue after the study period is over.
Officials at the American Cancer Society’s Orange County region in Santa Ana do not know of any other general support groups that target young adults.
Most groups are broken down by disease and, by default, gender. There are meetings for patients with prostate cancer and breast cancer. Some target children or people of various faiths and ethnic groups. A meeting for Vietnamese Americans, for example, recently was held at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange.
But there was little out there for Generation Xers and their slightly older peers. Many participants told stories of feeling uncomfortable when they walked into other meetings full of--gasp--older people.
“There’s definitely a need for it,” said Scott Sberna of Fountain Valley, who has lost part of a leg to cancer. “It’s hard to relate to people 50, 60, 70 because I still kind of think of myself as a kid, even though I am 33.”
An estimated 10% of the 131,935 cancer diagnoses expected in California this year are expected to be patients age 20 to 44, statistics that are fairly constant over the last five years, according to the American Cancer Society. For young women, breast, thyroid, skin and cervical cancers strike most often. For men, Kaposi’s sarcoma caused by AIDS is most common followed by testicular cancer, melanoma and leukemia.
Younger adults often rely on support groups to help them get over the shock of becoming ill at a time in their lives typically associated with college, mortgages, marriage and new careers rather than chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy.
“There’s a lot of life issues that haven’t been resolved yet,” said Edith O’Neill-Page, an oncology nurse at the Fountain Valley hospital.
Issues specific to young adults include the possibility of passing away before their parents, leaving a career or educational pursuit mid-stride for treatment and not having a spouse on whom to rely. Treatment costs are enormous and some younger adults often are without health insurance.
Others can no longer participate in hobbies favored by a generation known for its love of snowboarding, mountain biking, surfing and other extreme sports. Even relaxing changes: Sunbathing is out.
Then there’s dating.
How do you explain to a potential spouse that the cancer could return? Disfigurement from treatment is extremely difficult to deal with, O’Neill-Page said.
“If somebody’s married, they are going to stick by that person [through treatment],” Calvano said. “If you’re younger and you start dating someone, maybe some people would be afraid, if you were going to get in a relationship, that there would be a recurrence.”
Cancer also can destroy a young marriage.
“Many people who have had high doses of chemotherapy are unable to have children, and I have seen relationships end because of it,” said Lori J. Ash, director of psychosocial services at Pacific Coast Hematology/Oncology Medical Group in Fountain Valley.
But now, at least, there is a place to talk and share experiences, members said.
“It was really cool because I’ve never been around people my own age that had cancer,” Calvano said a few days after the first meeting. “It’s being able to share with people my own age.”
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The cancer symposium and support group for young adults holds sessions open to patients and survivors ages 20 to 40:
* Where: Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center, 11250 Warner Ave.; in Living Care Center behind the hospital
* When: Second and fourth Wednesdays of the month through April 23, 6:30-8 p.m.
* Topics: Health-insurance matters and medical advancements, dating during recovery, dealing with family and coping with possible disfigurement or recurrence of disease
* Cost: Admission is free but reservations are suggested
* Information: (714) 979-1408
Source: American Cancer Society
Researched by JOHN CANALIS / For The Times