David Baxter PhD
After Treatment Comes a New Battle, and Cancer Patients Aren’t PreparedBy The Learning Network, in The New York Times
June 21, 2022
This essay, by Emerson Riter, age 15, from The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., is one of the Top 11 winners of The Learning Network’s Ninth Annual Student Editorial Contest, for which we received 16,664 entries. We are publishing the work of all the winners and runners-up over the next week, and you can find them here as they post.
After Treatment Comes a New Battle, and Cancer Patients Aren’t PreparedWhenever I go swimming, somebody asks about the scar on my chest.
Most bathing suits don’t cover it, and people are curious, so I tell them: “I had cancer.” It’s a simple, nonchalant response, usually followed by an “Oh my gosh” or an awkward silence, and, for the longest time, that’s all I thought that my experience with cancer was going to be: an anecdote, a part of my life that will gradually fade into the background.
But my scar isn’t the only thing that cancer has left behind. Survivors often struggle with mental health problems that are too frequently left out of the cancer care handbook.
Each year in the United States, an estimated 15,780 adolescents are diagnosed with cancer. That’s 15,780 people whose lives, and the lives of the people close to them, have been altered at the drop of a hat. Some families move in search of the best hospitals, friends are called upon to take care of siblings or watch pets, and more often than not the kid is pulled out of school and alienated from society to receive care. Most of these people have also been hit with a dose of anxiety as questions are raised about survival, life after treatment and financial burdens.
Adolescents and young adults diagnosed with cancer are at a greater risk for depression and anxiety disorders due to disruptions in their development and their experience with a traumatic event. And yet, mental health issues related to cancer are minimized in the cancer care field, and professionals often misidentify symptoms of a mental health disorder as a normal emotional response to a cancer diagnosis. One study found that only 40 percent of cancer survivors reported that their medical teams discussed the possible mental impact cancer could have on them. Patients are receiving treatment so they can live their lives free of disease, and yet we continue to condemn them to suffer the fallout on their own.
Cancer care has evolved immensely in the past 50 years, and childhood cancer survival rates have skyrocketed. Today, the five-year survival rate for childhood cancer patients is 85 percent, up from 58 percent in the mid-1970s. We can credit these advancements to the incredible doctors and nurses working in pediatric oncology.
However, where methods to cure the tangible effects of cancer have improved, mental health resources are noticeably scarce. Conversations with an experienced psychiatrist or an open dialogue with medical staff about the psychological implications to come can help prepare cancer patients for the world after treatment. A cancer diagnosis invites uncertainty and fear into a person’s life, and while the patient fights to preserve his or her physical health, health care professionals need to realize that emotional well-being is just as important.
- American Cancer Society Medical & Editorial Content Team. “Key Statistics for Childhood Cancers.” American Cancer Society, 12 Jan. 2022.
- Grady, Denise. “Childhood Cancer Survivors Face Increased Risks Later.” The New York Times, 12 Oct. 2006.
- Moskowitz, Allison. “The Impact of Cancer on Mental Health: Recognizing Symptoms and Providing Support.” Oncology Nurse Advisor, 13 Aug. 2021.
- Park, Eliza M., and Donald L. Rosenstein. “Depression in Adolescents and Young Adults With Cancer.” National Library of Medicine, 17 June 2017.
- “U.S. Childhood Cancer Statistics.” American Childhood Cancer Association.
A Mental Health Crisis Among Our Youth
Mental health issues among children and teens in the United States are on the rise. Learn more about this worrisome trend from various angles.
- The Toll of Covid-19: During the pandemic, the number of children and adolescents needing urgent mental health care spiked.
- Rise in Suicide Among Black Youth: A recent study uncovered uncovered a sharp rise in suicide rates among Black youth, especially among girls.
- Prevention: With more young people reporting suicidal thoughts, concerned parents and loved-ones are looking for ways to help. Here are some suggestions.
- Advocacy Efforts: To contain the crisis, teens are organizing to improve the mental health services available to them.
- The Suicide Website: An online platform providing directions on how to die is linked to a trail of deaths among young people, a Times investigation found.