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Young Cancer Survivors May Struggle With Social Functioning

When someone faces a cancer diagnosis during the period of social maturation, the impacts can be lasting, according to a recent study.
BY Brielle Urciuoli
PUBLISHED March 30, 2017
Adjusting to life after a cancer diagnosis is not always easy for young patients, according to a recent study published in the journal, CANCER, which found that adolescent and young adult (AYA) cancer survivors may see slight improvements about a year after their diagnosis, but their social functioning hits a plateau after that, leaving them lagging behind their cancer-free peers.
 
In a multicenter longitudinal study, 141 AYA patients who were between the ages of 14 and 39 at diagnosis had their social functioning measured (via a self-reported measure) at diagnosis, 12 months and then 24 months after.
 
“Social functioning for recently diagnosed AYA patients with cancer was worse when compared to population norms,” study author Olga Husson, Ph.D., of the Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands said in an interview with CURE. “Although it improved somewhat over the two years following diagnosis, social functioning remained significantly lower compared to population norms after 24 months.”
 
Nearly one-third of survivors — many who were off-treatment and transitioning into their life after cancer — reported consistently low social function over time. As these individuals go from patient to survivor, they may be apprehensive about their future. This includes negative impacts from cancer on their financial situation, body image, work plans, relationships with a spouse/significant other and plans for having children, Husson said.
 
Additionally, survivors who scored low reported more physical symptoms and higher levels of psychological distress, and reported that they felt they had less social support.
 
In the study, 9 percent of participants had consistently high/normal social functioning; 47 percent had improved social functioning; 13 percent had worsening social functioning; and about 32 percent had consistently low social functioning.
 
This population is particularly vulnerable to suffering the social effects of a cancer diagnosis, as the disease may come at a time that hinders social maturation, Husson explained. This is when people develop their self-views, social cognition, awareness and emotional regulation.
 
“AYAs with cancer frequently report difficulties in maintaining or making new social relationships because of long-term effects of cancer treatment (hindering reintegration into school or work) or feeling anxious about ‘fitting into’ their peer group again,” Husson said.
 
However, Husson mentioned that there are steps that can be taken to improve social function in young survivors. For example, AYA patients may benefit from supportive care interventions or therapy. And as mentioned earlier, taking care of the physical pain can have an effect, too.
 
“Reducing physical symptoms and psychological distress and enhancing social support by intervention in the period after treatment may potentially help these young survivors to better reintegrate into society,” Husson said.
 
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