For Young Adults, “Cancer Recovery” Is A Loaded Term

Despite all of the advancements in cancer research and cures, there is one major aspect of the disease that is as under-discussed as it is controversial: patient cost. While the road to recovery is anything but easy, the road to post-cancer financial wellness is a hotly-contested and complex issue that both doctors and politicians are reluctant to address—yet it can leave patients in a desperate situation. A recent study of young adult cancer patients by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, in collaboration with academic medical centers throughout the U.S., brings the issue into sharp focus.

This study, one of the largest-ever of work-related risks in young adult cancer survivors, finds that of 872 survivors, 14.4% borrowed more than $10,000, and 1.5% said that they or their family had filed for bankruptcy as a direct result of the illness or its treatment. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said that cancer or treatment interfered with physical demands of their job, and 54% said that cancer or treatment interfered with their ability to perform mental tasks related to their job. The study also showed that not all cancers and not all treatments have the same effects on young survivors’ financial outcomes. For example, those exposed to chemotherapy were more than three times as likely to borrow over $10,000, and more than three times as likely to report job-related mental impairment than survivors not treated with chemotherapy.

“This project combined the expertise of researchers with diverse training from major cancer centers throughout the U.S. in a team-science approach, which made it possible to gather and explore data from adolescent and young adult cancer survivors in new ways. As a result, this is among the first and largest studies to examine the impact of cancer diagnosis and treatment on work-related outcomes in this important understudied group of survivors,” says Betsy Risendal, Ph.D., one of its investigators at the University of Colorado Cancer Center and an associate professor at the Colorado School of Public Health.

The amount of debt taken on by Millennials and even Generation X is becoming a very serious social and political issue. The debate usually centers on college debt, but medical costs can escalate very quickly even for people who, up until that point, were financially sound. Moreover, a diagnosis of cancer, particularly for younger demographics, can very often “come out of nowhere,” leaving such patients unprepared emotionally as well as monetarily.

“The results of this study are important because they describe the challenges faced by adolescent and young adults during and after cancer treatment that could uniquely impact both educational and work-related opportunities,” Dr. Risendal says.

The study surveyed 872 young adults, ages 18 to 39 within five years of cancer diagnosis, but after at least a year since their treatment ended. Participants included 241 survivors of breast cancer, 126 survivors of thyroid cancer, 126 survivors of leukemia/lymphoma and 342 survivors of other cancer types. Interestingly, these cancer types tend to be treated with different modes of therapy, and types of therapy were associated with different long-term, work-related side effects.

While the degree of specific risks varied by cancer type and treatment, risks for debt, time off (paid and unpaid) and work-related impairment (physical and mental) were elevated across the board for young adult cancer survivors. A cancer diagnosis and treatment can also lead to gaps on a young adult’s resume that human resource professionals tend to see negatively.

More awareness, understanding, and education needs to take place in order to combat this sordid state of affairs for many young cancer survivors.

Ketterl, Tyler G., et al. (2019). Lasting effects of cancer and its treatment on employment and finances in adolescent and young adult cancer survivors. Retrieved from:
Landrum, Sandra. (2017). The Impact of Student Loan Debt On Millennial Happiness. Retrieved from:
Sundem, Garth. (2019). Young adult cancer survivors struggle with debt, work-related impairments. Retrieved from:

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