10 Things to Know About Millennial Cancer Survivors, Patients, and Friendship

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By: Melissa Schenkman, MPH, MSJ

Cancer and millennials. It’s a combination that can be hard to fathom. But for some millennials and their friends, it’s a reality.

While millennials are known for appearing young and healthy on the outside, there are many among us who are either currently undergoing treatment or who already hold the title of cancer survivor in their 20s and 30s.

In recognition of National Cancer Survivor Month, YMyHealth spoke with Dr. Suneel Kamath, a fellow millennial and medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic, specializing in gastrointestinal cancers. He was drawn to the field because of the close doctor-patient relationship and the opportunities for growth in researching and developing new treatments for patients.

Suneel Kamath, MD, is finishing up his first year in practice at Cleveland Clinic’s Taussig Cancer Center. He completed his hematology/oncology fellowship at Northwestern University in the summer of 2019.

“I really value the level of connection I have as a physician with my patients and their families, and how much trust medical oncologists build with people as we help them deal with the seriousness of cancer,” Kamath said.

But the number of millennial patients he has seen with colon and rectal cancers concern him. Kamath has even seen three patients in their early 30s present with gastric cancer (aka. stomach)—a lesser-known cancer in Generation Y.

“I really value the level of connection I have as a physician with my patients and their families, and how much trust medical oncologists build with people as we help them deal with the seriousness of cancer,” Kamath said.

But the number of millennial patients he has seen with colon and rectal cancers concern him. Kamath has even seen three patients in their early 30s present with gastric cancer (aka. stomach)—a lesser-known cancer in Generation Y.

Here are 10 things millennials—friends of patients and survivors, and cancer survivors themselves—should know and consider.

A Little Help from Your Friends

Listen and be patient.

Kamath’s best advice for friends of millennials going through treatment is to be a good listener. When you ask a question it may take 10 or 20 seconds, for your friend to come out and say what they really need. Learn to be comfortable with silence. If you’re patient and can deal with your own anxiety during that pause, your friend will be more comfortable.

People worry about what to say to their friends, but it’s not what you’re saying that actually matters, he says. Just making yourself available to them and checking-in to see how they are doing matters more.

Small gestures go a long way.

Offer to do little things like picking up groceries or dry cleaning, or dropping off dinner one night. While everyday chores may seem minor, to a friend who is going through treatment, working, etc., its something that will be greatly appreciated.

Be cautious with your advice.

Be a well-wisher for sure but be careful about offering advice from your Google searches on cancer. Alternative treatments like juice cleanses, written about online, can do more harm than good. It’s best to remember that your friend is most likely getting the right advice from their doctor and that he or she is the best resource of information.  

Find out their story.

What if you learn that your friend is a cancer survivor, but you didn’t know him or her during treatment? If you feel that you know the person well enough and are comfortable, ask your friend to share his or her story with you.

“The perspective you gain after going through a cancer diagnosis is unlike anything else,” Kamath says. “One of the greatest joys of my work is listening to the depth of patients’ thinking because they have a wealth of information and knowledge to share.”

In some ways reflecting on a cancer experience can be cathartic for your friend. It can remind him or her how far they’ve come and help put it in the past. So, if you’re comfortable, ask.

For Millennial Cancer Survivors

Be aware of your original symptoms.

As millennials with our young and invincible mindset, we often see a symptom or sign and think it’s going to go away in a week. That’s part of why so many millennials present with cancers that are at an advanced stage. It’s important to remember what originally brought you to the doctor. For example, in colon cancer it could’ve been blood in the stool or more than usual constipation. It may be nothing, but it’s important to pay attention to see if it continues happening and is not what’s normal for you. If so, see your doctor.

Don’t live with a huge fear of recurrence.

Kamath doesn’t want people to be debilitated by the anxiety of constantly thinking that whatever symptom they may have is a sign the cancer is back. Easier said than done sometimes, he realizes, but his hope for patients who have been through treatment and have achieved long-term remission is to go back to living the fullest and most successful life possible. “I tell patients, ‘I want to help you be you.’”

Don’t get caught up in special diets as a prevention tool.

Vegan, alkaline diets, cutting out sugar completely, Kamath has seen patients on all of these. The result: unless it was something they wanted to do, most patients are unhappy with the restrictions and lose a lot of weight unnecessarily. There is also very little research showing the effectiveness of such diets on preventing cancer, so he wouldn’t recommend starting these for that purpose.

Add an oncologist to your moving to-do list.

Millennials are always moving to different cities for new job opportunities. After you get settled in your new place and at your job, get established with an oncologist in your new city. Close follow-up is key to catching cancer early and intervening early if it comes back.

Don’t minimize your symptoms, even side effects.

Millennials can experience symptoms, such as neuropathy (pain, weakness, and numbness from nerve damage) in their hands and feet resulting from chemotherapy or pain from bowel surgery. While you can choose to deal with these symptoms, you don’t need to. Kamath urges millennials to tell their doctors about what they are experiencing because there are alternative treatments to medication. This includes acupuncture. There’s even physical therapy that strengthens bowel muscles to help with pain from bowel surgery.

Let your voice be heard to help other millennials.

Whether you’re a millennial who is going through treatment currently or a cancer survivor, you should share your experience with others using whatever platform you can to do so. The advocacy has the potential to make a difference in increasing fellow millennials’ knowledge and future treatment options.

Research on funding for different types of cancer showed that some receive far more funding than others, as Kamath and his colleagues found in their July 2019 study.  For example, they found that nonprofit organization funding for breast cancer—a condition often spoken and written about by millennial women—was $460 million in 2015 compared to $18 million in funding for colorectal cancer—for which there are fewer voices, including millennial ones.

Shining a spotlight on all types of cancer that affect younger people cannot only help to increase awareness, but also potential research dollars for finding treatments.

COVID-19 and Cancer

At first, stay-at-home orders were a shared experience for millennials with and without cancer. But now that many states have lifted restrictions on public places, it’s really tough for millennials undergoing cancer treatments. They can’t take the risk of not staying home. Just having cancer itself and undergoing chemotherapy are risk factors for worse outcomes from COVID-19.

Making yourself physically available to your friends while maintaining social distancing would really help them avoid feeling isolated while not necessarily being exposed to people. Think zoom calls or chatting outside their house with a minimum six feet apart.

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