Living with Cancer: The Ultimate Teen Guide

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Denise Thornton
Scarecrow Press/Rowman & Littlefield
175 pages.

 

“Lots of kids think they are invincible,” says Peter, who learned he had bone cancer soon after he started college. “Cancer will change your mind about that.”

Peter is among 72,000 teens and young adults diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States. Author Denise Thornton, who specializes in making technical topics accessible, interviewed Peter and 10 other young people who share their experiences to benefit other youth in this candid guide. They agree that although “cancer makes you grow up fast,” it can also “make you become more that you ever thought you could be.”

Thornton begins by defining cancer – which has more than 100 types, 11 of which are common in teens. She describes biopsy methods and other tests, lists symptoms – often mistaken for minor ailments – and urges young people to see a doctor if conditions persist.

The medical community refers to adolescents and young adults with cancer as AYAs, whose reactions to cancer are different from children and older adults. A sidebar lists five characteristics of AYAs, aged 15 to 39, such as planning careers and futures. Doctors believe that teens’ changing bodies react differently to cancer from those who are younger or older.

Cancer treatment is also different for teens. The three main cancer- fighting tactics – surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy – often are used together for young people. “It’s tough for the kids, and it’s tough for the family, but we can be more aggressive in our treatment with a young person,” says Dr. Paul Sondel, a professor of pediatrics, oncology and genetics. Youths can tolerate stronger, more frequent treatments that increase chances of survival. Amber, for example, started chemotherapy for leukemia at 14, enduring treatment for five years with only six months off.

Justin was captain of his high school football and wrestling teams when he was diagnosed at 17 with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Plunging into three surgeries, followed by chemotherapy, Thomas exchanged sports for acting in plays and mentoring in the Big Brothers program.

Peter got a knee replacement and chemo for his bone cancer and returned to college; then cancer reappeared in his lungs. Three years with surgeries, an artificial leg, and recurring cancer were followed by five years wondering whether he would live. Peter found inspiration helping other cancer patients learn to paddle a kayak and performing his own music.

As adjuncts to standard treatments, Thornton also covers alternative therapies, from acupuncture to herbs and yoga.

One of the book’s strengths is its coverage of cancer’s effects on family members and friends. As teens push toward independence, their illness makes them reliant on their families. Suffering from a rare form of cancer at 16, Juliette says she “felt like a baby,” begging her mother to stay overnight in the hospital. Amber’s mother quit her job to take care of her daughter. In her essay, “What Fighting Cancer with Your Sister Can Teach You,” Amber’s sister Megan concludes that involvement in Amber’s five-year struggle “made me a better person.”

Some provide bone marrow transplants for siblings with leukemia. Sometimes parents need caretakers: Chase, 16, and Chelsea, 18, learned how to care for themselves and their mother when she had breast cancer.

Cancer reveals who your true friends are. Few know what to do; Thornton suggests telling friends what you need. When facing your own mortality, friends’ preoccupations can seem trivial. “Your friendsare talking about their bad hair day and maybe you don’t have any hair at all,” says Libby, whose early-childhood bone cancer returned at age 12.

Loss of hair and other body concerns fill an informative chapter, including rarely discussed hazardous chemicals in cosmetics. Chapters on cancer camps, keeping up in school, and fundraising offer solid information.

The final chapter title contains a poignant question: “Am I a Survivor Yet?” At 20, Libby must “decide who  am without cancer.” In the 1950s, few children survived cancer. Today eight out of 10 young people who get cancer become long-term survivors. The bad news is that treatments also destroy healthy cells, resulting in “late effects” from learning disabilities to another cancer. “Late effects are like land mines that you are going to have to be watching for the rest of your life,” says Thornton. Sidebars warn against cancercausing hazards, from solvents in dry cleaning to pesticides and radon gas. A final, short section on cancer risks in the environment refers to sidebars throughout the book; the topic merits an entire chapter.

This guide in the self-help series “It Happened to Me” has a teenfriendly format with wide borders, digestible sections, graphics and black-and-white photographs. Plentiful sidebars add useful tips and information, from book and movie recommendations to healing exercises. Each chapter ends with source notes and web resources; a glossary and index aid accessibility.

At the heart of the book are the experiences of the young cancer survivors and families, who reveal their pains both emotional and physical, their coping strategies, their fears and hopes – and their determination and courage. Many resolve to help others. Libby teaches youth with physical disabilities. Peter plans a career in psychology. His sister Addie, who devoted her high school years to Peter, wants to become an oncology nurse; so do Amber and Amanda. Juliette is also considering a medical career. All speak glowingly of their doctors and nurses.

This accessible book offers valuable, often lifesaving insights and information to both adults and youth.

Contact: (800) 462-6420, www.rlpgbooks.com.