Nick Thiry had just moved back to Chicago from California, started a job at The Wit hotel, and found an apartment in November 2012 when he went to have a lump on his testicle checked out.
“Right as I started to feel like I was getting into my routine, it was all sort of brought to a halt,” Thiry said.
He had testicular cancer. And it already had spread to his abdomen and lungs.
Thiry, 24, of Roscoe Village, is one of nearly 70,000 young adults between the ages of 15 and 40 diagnosed with cancer every year in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. Although the population of 20- and 30-somethings with cancer is relatively small compared with the 1.7 million total, cancer poses a unique set of challenges to Millennial patients, according to the American Cancer Society.
People in their 20s and 30s have hormonal and biological differences, which still are being studied, compared to young children or people older than 40, said Jen Reichek, a physician at Lurie Children’s Hospital. Young adults don’t always fit comfortably into pediatric or adult hospitals, and some Millennials are reluctant to bring their health concerns to a physician.
Access to health care, which isn’t great for young adults, is another concern, Reichek said. “If you’re in college and go to the health center, and they don’t know what they’re talking about, you may not get the right tests; you may get bounced around from provider to provider; and nobody ever thinks that cancer could be the reason you feel crappy,” she said. “If you don’t have insurance and you don’t have a doctor, you’re less likely to seek care in a timely manner.”
The cost of treating cancer is incredibly steep on its own, according to Reichek. But treatment can be particularly expensive if the cancer is diagnosed at a late stage, which can happen to young adult patients who do not get the routine health screenings that older patients are expected to undergo.
“It’s up to millions of dollars over a year,” she said. “I have patients who get billed for thousands of dollars after every hospitalization.”
Thiry’s case is a lucky one, he said. Testicular cancer can be treated very quickly, and his parents’ insurance was able to cover the treatment. After multiple surgeries and four rounds of chemotherapy, he was declared cancer-free only four months after the diagnosis.
The emotional toll of the illness was significant and humbling, Thiry said. He watched his savings account shrink from related expenses and dealt with seeing his friends post photos from Friday nights at bars while he was undergoing chemotherapy and struggling with nausea.
“Putting your life on hold when you’re 23 is never easy, especially when no one else has to do it,” he said. “I don’t think people realize how it affects literally every aspect of your life.”
Matthew Zachary, 39, who was diagnosed with brain cancer at 21, founded Stupid Cancer, a radio show and online resource for young adults with cancer. “There are general issues you face just being alive in your 20s and 30s: jobs, unemployment, careers, parenting,” he said. “Cancer, on top of that, amplifies the needs you have anyway.”
The illness can feel isolating for young adults as they confront problems like the financial burden of treatment, the potential of becoming infertile and the psychological toll associated with a life-threatening illness long before their peers even have given them thought, he said.
“We wanted to give a generation permission to be really angry that this disrupted their lives when they’re supposed to be taking 10 steps forward,” Zachary said.
Thiry said he values the connections he has made with other cancer survivors, and wants to pay it forward. He now volunteers with Imerman Angels, a Chicago-based nonprofit that connects current patients with survivors, mentoring and offering moral support to other young men.
“If someone told me you’re going to go through chemo and two surgeries and come out better, I would have laughed at them,” he said. “But I’m infinitely more confident having gone through it.”