Young adult cancer patients find help and hope with Adolescent and Young Adult Program

Georgia Wilson, 24, remembers the first time she shared her own cancer experience to help someone else. She was sitting in the lobby of MD Anderson’s Adolescent and Young Adult Clinic and traded numbers with another patient. She called her the next day, and they’ve been friends ever since.

Wilson, an osteosarcoma survivor, says it was that moment last year when she realized she wanted to become an oncologist, and MD Anderson is helping her get there. The Adolescent and Young Adult Program not only runs the clinic, it also offers a range of support services, a scholarship fund, and opportunities to meet people who understand how lonely and isolating cancer can be for young adults.

“MD Anderson provided me with a community of friends, nurses and doctors who influenced the way I’ll approach medicine in my future practice,” says Wilson, who learned she’d been accepted into medical school last spring while she was in the hospital surrounded by her care team.

Serving young cancer patients’ needs, from fertility to psychosocial support

“Our approach is to tailor supportive care services to their needs, whether that’s vocational counseling, oncofertility or genetic testing,” says Michael Roth, M.D. He and Andy Livingston, M.D., are the co-directors of the program.

In its first year, the clinic has seen more than 500 patients, and demand is growing. The clinic team sees patients ages 15 to 39 with a current or prior cancer diagnosis.

Patients get the clinic’s support in addition to the cancer treatment led by their primary care team. Patients can request a referral to the program from their care team at any time in the course of their diagnosis, during treatment, after treatment or even in long-term survivorship.

At the first visit to the clinic, each referred patient sees a provider, psychologist/vocational counselor and social work counselor.

 “We have the time and resources needed to provide specific services to support their treatment, and we collaborate with many other departments,” Livingston says.

Bringing these services to these young patients means earlier interventions for better outcomes.

Oncofertility, for example, is extremely important to discuss before cancer treatment begins. The clinic team provides fertility counseling for patients and coordinates fertility services for them, whether that means sperm banking or working with fertility specialist Terri Woodard, M.D., on egg retrieval.

“We recognize how disruptive a cancer diagnosis is to this time of transition to independence, family planning, educational growth and career development,” Roth says. “We want to help them get back to their lives.”

A community for young adult cancer patients

“Community is at the heart of the Adolescent and Young Adult Program,” says Wendy Griffith, program manager. “We help them connect so they realize there are others like them.”

With support groups, social events, an advisory council of young adults sharing input and an annual retreat, the team provides plenty of opportunities for patients to make friends and share experiences. They partner with Cancer180, MD Anderson’s support community for young adults, to host the Young Adult Cancer Survivorship Conference.

Roth, Livingston and Griffith are excited to expand their program to meet growing demand and help even more young adults. In fact, the clinic plans to expand to see patients four days a week.

Supporting young adult cancer patients’ dreams

Another way MD Anderson helps patients and survivors is through the Adolescent and Young Adult Scholarship, which provides financial support to patients pursuing education after their treatment.

This year, 39 patients and survivors will use scholarship money to pursue everything from early education and mechanical engineering to radiation therapy and medical school. Each one is grateful for the financial support, especially after the high cost of their treatment.

Wilson plans to use the scholarship she’s receiving to help pay for medical school.

“My doctors encouraged me to continue to envision my future and believe I could beat my cancer,” she says. “They inspired me to become a physician so I could help patients just like me.”

A longer version of this story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson’s quarterly publication for employees, volunteers, retirees and their families.

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