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Young cancer patients find comfort and support through specialized program

2020-01-14
By Maria Georgiou
Interview by Kemeisha McDonald

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Led by a talented team of health care providers, the Adolescent & Young Adult (AYA) Oncology Program is the largest of its kind in Canada and offers personalized support and resources to young cancer patients at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

Every year, 1,500 young adults are diagnosed with cancer at The Princess Margaret. As they navigate their cancer journey, their unique psychosocial needs can be addressed through the AYA Program.

“People want to feel normal, they don’t want to identify themselves as cancer patients,” says Dr. Abha Gupta, founder and Medical Director of the AYA Program. “They just want to have the confidence to plan for the future, apply for a job, or go on a date. These issues highlight the stigma of having cancer.”

Resources and support are provided related to fertility, sexual health, school and work, body image, and survivorship. 

“Fertility is the one survivorship issue that is associated with the greatest amount of distress,” says Dr. Gupta. “Patients are forced to think about parenthood and pregnancy at the same time as receiving a cancer diagnosis.”

“I want young people to understand that there are ways of being able to reach out to a support network within the Cancer Centre to address things that they may not feel comfortable bringing up with their oncologist,” adds Dr. Gupta.

Exercise, sleep, hygiene and a stable network are all beneficial to improving cancer related outcomes, and all contribute to a healthy state of mind and overall mental wellbeing. It is common for young patients to lose confidence when going through a cancer experience but the AYA Program offers patients the resources and support to enter their cancer experience as ‘soldiers’ and come out as ‘warriors.’

“It is critical to manage the emotions that go along with all the changes associated with a cancer journey,” says Dr. Gupta. “You have to maintain a state of mind that helps you cope. We highly encourage people to seek professional help so they’re not debilitated by the what ifs.”

The AYA Program provides specialized consultations, navigation to community based programs, and coordination with medical teams, fertility teams and end of life care. The program accepts self-referrals and family or health care provider referrals, and accommodates patients with any type of cancer to provide the best cancer related care and the best AYA care. Patients are able to access services from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday and can email aya@uhn.ca with any questions or concerns.

Check out “The C Word” video series here, done by University Health Network (UHN), featuring the candid perspectives of seven young adult cancer survivors.