Every day in the UK, about seven patients aged 13-24 will be told they have cancer. That is about 2,500 new cases a year, less than 1% of all cancers. It is partly because of its rarity in young people that the signs are often missed or misdiagnosed.
The signs of cancer in young patients can be difficult to detect. They can be similar to other less harmful conditions and suspicion of such a rarity is low among healthcare professionals. Young people and their parents may not recognise the seriousness of their symptoms and may delay seeking help.
The long-term impact of aggressive cancer treatments on young patients can be significant. Chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery and steroids can all have damaging and long-lasting physical effects.
Treatment can have harsh effects, including hair loss, severe weight gain and scarring. Young patients diagnosed with bone tumours, for example, have to cope with the impact of major surgery and in some cases, amputation.
There is, however, a lack of rigorous research looking at how the length of time between the first symptoms appearing and treatment starting affects outcomes for young patients. However, we do know that for some adult cancers, a longer time to diagnosis significantly contributes to less favourable outcomes.
What we see time and again is the negative psychological impact a prolonged time to diagnosis can have. Young patients and their families often believe action could have been taken sooner, and feel they were not listened to. They can be angry or upset if symptoms have been attributed to less serious illness.
These problems may affect how the young patient copes with their diagnosis and treatment, and how they readjust to life afterwards.
The teenage years are a time when major decisions are made about the path life will take. A young person diagnosed with cancer suddenly has to face a potentially life-threatening illness while finding themselves isolated at home or in hospital.
They may miss school or college while their friends and peers move on with schooling, careers, friendships and relationships. Without the right support, the psychological impact of cancer can also be significant.
We owe it to young patients to be more vigilant in diagnosis and our priority must always be to limit the impact of cancer on their lives.
- Sam Smith is Teenage Cancer Trust head of nursing in the north of England
- Teenage Cancer Trust www.teenagecancertrust.org
- Teenage Cancer Action Week, 14-20 October. www.teenagecancertrust.org/actionweek.