The Effects of Cancer in Young Adulthood including Sexual Health

While cancer does not discriminate- even with age, those who face cancer in their youth or early adulthood face a life-long battle with the after-effects and intimacy, which can hinder every aspect of life and living thereafter. This is why addressing the most common issues early in treatment can better help the patient know what to expect and be ready to take action to reclaim certain aspects of their lives.

Here are some of the more common issues that young adults face in their battles to reclaim their lives after cancer and illness.

Issues with Treatment

For some young adults in the 16–24-year-old range, they are often bouncing between finding a balance between doctors who have specialized in treating childhood cancers and those doctors who mainly treat older adults. Not all specialists are familiar with treating cancers in this age range, nor do they take the time to discuss and empower their patients on how to keep being young, have all of the experiences, and wholly heal.

This can cause the younger patients to feel isolated and out of place with their treatment and doctors. Most patient’s in these offices are either older adults or younger children, which does not give the young adult many people to connect with on their level. Being able to connect with other patients who are going through similar issues is also a vital part of healing and living. Thankfully the internet has provided a number of methods for support groups to b created and meet regularly for younger adults facing cancer and long-term illness.

Doctors and specialists also feel that young adult patients can often be challenging in that they are busily trying to find their footing in life, while trying to find a balance with their cancer care. This can result in missed appointments, ever-changing treatment plans, and a misunderstanding of the serious nature of their cancer- which ultimately builds a resentment and disconnect.

Financial Issues with Treatment

In today’s age, young adults often face a lack of insurance coverage. Many adults up to age 25 find themselves being dropped from their parents’ insurance plans, while they have an inability to work for themselves while they struggle through treatment. The loss of insurance and high cost of treatment causes many young adults to cancel their treatments and avoid the things that they cannot afford in regard to their treatment plan- which can have devastating consequences. Many are unaware of the financial assistance plans and resources available through hospitals, special organizations, pharmaceutical companies and others than were designed to help people who cannot afford or do not have insurance for their cancer treatment.

Because the treatment for cancer and other illnesses can be extreme and take the ability for one to be able to work, it is important for young adults to learn the ropes and rules when it comes to medical treatment and their prospected employer. It is vital for employees to be honest with their employer, as many have clauses and exceptions written into their handbooks for this sort of medical treatment, and some may qualify for the family medical leave act in various ways.

Social and Emotional Issues

Some of the most complicated challenges young adults will face are the social and emotional issues that will arise at various points through their cancer journey. Young adulthood is the time where humans begin to learn who they are, what they want out of life, and create a plan to move towards those goals. All of that can be easily put off or ignored all together in the face of a cancer battle. For others, young adulthood is the start of their relationship partnership or having children. One cancer diagnosis can through every plan into instant turmoil and chaos.

During treatment, their new life focus becomes living and beating the cancer. There are, however, a number of emotional concerns that can arise before, during and after treatment- which can last a lifetime. These could include:

  • Having concerns about dating, marrying, being able to have or continue to raise children;
  • Resenting their cancer and having to go through such complex medical treatment when others their age do not;
  • Worrying about their cancer returning or developing new health problems linked to their cancer for the rest of their lives;
  • Dealing with physical changes and body changes directly related to their cancer treatment that may be permanent, or alter the way things were;
  • Having concerns with being treated differently from others;
  • Discrimination in the workplace due to cancer and on-going medical treatments.

Mindset during the cancer journey plays a huge role in the patient’s overall mental outlook through their experience. No cancer or medical experience is like another, and keeping a level head, even in the chaos, can make all the difference for finding the positives and continuing to have a successful and fulfilling life. That is not always an easy task and adjusting to cancer can take years.

Having feelings of anxiety, depression and other emotional reactions are normal during the journey. However, those who are feeling overly worried, depressed, angry, or facing spiraling anxiety can hinder their ability to find a level mindset to move on with life. When the mind is bogged down with these feelings, it can make healing take much longer. Finding support from family, friends, mental health workers, support groups and others, young adults facing cancer and illness can still thrive in spite of all they have had to deal with. Being open and honest about mental health is also a vital aspect of patient recovery and survivorship.

Sexual & Intimacy Issues

One of the most unspoken categories of issues that young adults face with cancer and treatment are sexual and intimacy related issues. For anyone going through cancer and treatment, loss of ability and sexual dysfunction are some of the most quietly reported issues. These issues are not commonly or openly discussed with young patients by their doctors or specialists, which can leave them wondering if they are going through these very common issues alone.

Both men and women face these issues in varying forms and are often left to their own devices to either keep living with these issues silently, or directly questions their doctors about the issues they are facing- which can be embarrassing and uncomfortable- which is why many simply do not ever bring it up.

There have been limited studies done on cancer-facing young adults and how treatment has affected their sexuality and intimacy needs, but the few that have been done have reported the following most common issues for those aged 15 to 24:

  • Pain during intercourse
  • Loss of libido and lack of desire
  • Difficulty reaching orgasm
  • Inability to orgasm
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Early or delayed ejaculation
  • Vaginal dryness

Of those studied, women reported that pain during intercourse or sexual activity prevented them from being sexually active at all. Males reported that their inability to maintain an erection caused more mental stress, which then turned to a complete lack of ability or desire. All people surveyed listed more than one sexual dysfunction issue that they were facing.

These young adults who were studied in this French National Sexual and Reproductive Health Survey (published by BMC Public Health) stated they were not comfortable openly discussing these issues with their doctors or specialists, and the topics were not broached during their treatment or survivorship appointments.

The most commonly discussed sexual topics for young adults tend to be sexually transmitted diseases, and how to avoid getting them. Rarely is sexual dysfunction addressed in young adulthood, as intimacy and sexuality are still not considered vital parts of the human existence and a taboo topic. This is why so many young adults facing the cancer journey feel alone and discouraged when it comes to their sexuality and feel that they are simply never going to have their intimate needs met thanks to cancer.

By not addressing their intimacy and sexual dysfunction issues, this sets the patient up to live their lives never feeling whole or attempting intimacy within their relationships. Many of these same surveyed patients claimed that they felt a “wall” or “roadblock” in all of their personal relationships and struggled to deal with intimacy and sexual situations after their cancer journey because they simply did not know how or felt their partner would judge them or not understand. This is why adding intimacy and sexual dysfunction into all aspects of cancer and medical care is vital to the whole healing of humans.

There are a multitude of options for both men and women who are facing varying forms of sexual dysfunction after medical treatment. These methods are often holistic and the therapies to help regain function and ability can be done in the privacy of their own homes. There are also courses, services and options for young couples who are struggling with fertility preservation options, and experts available who can privately help these young adults reclaim their sexuality.

For young adults, addressing these issues most commonly seen in cancer and medical treatments and after in survivorship is vital for whole healing and life after cancer. By helping the patient face these issues, and give proper warning of what could come, this helps the patient be ready to face these new challenges and understand that there are ways of working through each and every one of these issues.

For more specific resources or assistance with intimacy and sexuality issues, please contact our Reclaiming Intimacy team of experts, who can help you create a plan to get your intimacy and sexuality needs back on track!

Resources Used:

Reclaiming Intimacy

Contemporary OBGYN

American Cancer Society

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