How Cancer Can Shape Young Patients’ Sense of Identity


As part of its Speaking Out video series, CURE® spoke with Lillian Dugan of the Dear Jack Foundation about how a cancer diagnosis ‘adds a new identity’ for adolescent and young adult patients.

For adolescent and young adult (AYA) patients, cancer can be particularly challenging as they navigate the crucial period of self-discovery and identity formation. Speaking with CURE® as part of the “Speaking Out” video series, Lillian Dugan, director of programs for the Dear Jack Foundation — which offers support programs for young adult patients with cancer and survivors — discussed how a cancer diagnosis can disrupt the sense of self and identity for young patients.

The age range of 18 to 39 encompasses a pivotal time of self-discovery, Dugan said, where individuals grapple with significant life changes and milestones.

"This is when people are figuring out who they are, and then [a diagnosis] adds a new identity," she explained.

Societal misconceptions about cancer predominantly affecting older demographics can exacerbate feelings of isolation and disconnect for AYA patients, as well.

“This age group is not stereotypically the age group that we think of when we hear ‘cancer,’” Dugan said. “We think of grandparents, we think of someone in their 70s. So that definitely impacts [AYA patients]. And I do think in a lot of ways that hurts them in the hospital setting. We've had multiple participants say that, ‘You know, I'm the youngest one in the waiting room,’ or, ‘I was mistaken for the granddaughter of someone who's here.’”

Recognizing the unique needs of AYA patients, Dugan stressed the importance of seeking out specialized support groups tailored to their demographic. Such groups, she said, provide a sense of community and solidarity, offering a safe space for individuals to share experiences and receive support from peers.

Transitioning into survivorship presents its own set of challenges, as individuals grapple with integrating their cancer experience into their evolving sense of self. Dugan acknowledged the complexities of post-treatment life, emphasizing the importance of ongoing support for survivors, with programs like the Dear Jack Foundation's monthly community calls offering a platform for survivors to address lingering concerns and uncertainties as they navigate the path forward.

For those striving to reclaim a sense of normalcy post-treatment, Dugan urged patients and survivors to connect with a therapist, and advocated for self-compassion and patience.

“The biggest thing that we see is just the expectations we set for ourselves and what our participants are going through and what they're thinking about. … [It’s important] to have compassion for yourself, that you have gotten through this, yourself and your body have gone through this and getting back to whatever normal may be, can take some time and can take a lot of self-compassion,” she said.

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