Loss of fertility. Dating after a mastectomy. The fear that your children will grow up without you. A cancer diagnosis is devastating at any age. But receiving a diagnosis as a young adult, which oncologists define as age 40 or younger, brings with it a unique set of concerns, many of which aren't always addressed in cancer support groups.
Anchorage resident Carey Carpenter discovered the scarcity of resources available for young adult cancer patients in July 2011 when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer at age 34. She was the youngest member of her cancer support group and, with two young children and a full-time job, found herself unable to completely relate to the other attendees.
So she formed the Anchorage Young Cancer Coalition (AYCC) in January 2013 to connect with other cancer patients at a similar stage in life.
"I just wanted to talk to somebody else who was young and had been through it," she said.
Molly Ridout was one of the people she found. The single mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2012 at age 42. The support groups she attended were comprised mostly of retired woman, none of whom could relate to her struggle of trying to keep up with the normal demands of life while dealing with cancer.
The AYCC, she said, serves a "vital need...for support for the women who receive a diagnosis when they're in the prime of life."
Though the group is geared toward "young adult" cancer patients, Carpenter said it is really more a stage of life group, and anybody who can relate to the issues group members face are welcome. Members range in age from 9 to 55, and while men are welcome to join, Carpenter said most don't attend group meetings. Instead, she puts them in touch with other male cancer patients, and they often connect outside the group.
The AYCC isn't a structured support group, and there is no group leader facilitating discussion. The group's goal is to foster friendship through shared experience. The group meets twice a month at Far North Yarn Co. in Spenard, and holds numerous events throughout the month—walks, dinners out or weekends away—that allow members to have fun in a supportive environment. Conversations about cancer come up organically, and sometimes not at all.
The support Tracie Timmerman has received from the group has been a lifesaver. Diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2014 at age 43, the mother of two said the diagnosis left her feeling lost.
"Like most women, you feel kind of lost and like you're the only one going through it," she said. Her doctor referred her to the AYCC and, with some heavy convincing from her husband, she attended a meeting, for which she is grateful.
"Without this group I'd still be searching for other people that are just like me," she said. "I'm not abnormal, but I'm not what I was before. But I'm 100% normal when I'm with them."
To learn more about the AYCC or attend a meeting, visit the group's webpage at www.anchorageyoungcancer.com, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a list of breast cancer resources and support in Alaska click here.
This article first appeared in the 2015 edition of Alaska Pulse magazine. Contact Pulse editor Jamie Gonzales at email@example.com.