Pushing past cancer
Young cancer patients tackle challenges together

Amun Bains always thought she’d be a doctor. That was before she got cancer. Suddenly, at 22, she faced ovarian cancer —and the uncertainty that came with it.

Even as a young woman, Bains was no stranger to pain, fatigue and problems most women her age never deal with, including anemia, ovarian cysts and blood transfusions. But this time was different.

“I couldn’t say it out loud,” she said of her surprising diagnosis. “It was unfair.”

Only a year from completing a chemistry degree, and her medical school dream derailed, cancer forced her on a stressful detour.

Thankfully, she discovered peers with similar issues — young cancer patients, people who “got it.” Not only did they understand her experience, but with them she could turn her struggles into action. She did that through the Young Adult Cancer Advisory Board and the group’s annual, day-long event for adolescents and young adults affected by cancer, Pushing Past Cancer.

On Nov. 4, more than 100 people —patients undergoing treatment, survivors, caregivers and family members —attended the fifth annual event, co-hosted by the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. Speakers delivered talks on legal rights, health insurance concerns, pain management and cannabis use, coping with chemo brain, skincare during chemotherapy, meditation and yoga as stress relief, and career counseling.

“Adolescents and young adults with cancer have very unique needs that are not addressed by most oncology programs,” says Marcie Ellis, the event coordinator and a member of the cancer center’s Supportive Oncology Program. “Fertility, employment issues, poor health insurance, body image, fear of reoccurrence and isolation are a few examples.”

Jamie Ledezma, a cancer survivor, patient rights attorney, and professor with the Southwestern Community College District, emphasized the importance of understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA covers more than parking or wheelchair ramp access — from telecommuting to temperature adjustments — but each patient’s case is unique. States and counties may also have their own regulations; for example, patients in California are protected by a law that prevents universities or employers from requiring their social media account information.

Small, volunteer-led talks delved into sex and relationships, including intimacy challenges and how cancer can complicate committed partnerships. Dina Hankin, a mental health and child development specialist at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, shared tips for managing cognitive issues such as forgetfulness at school or work.

Ellis says peer-to-peer interaction is essential for young cancer patients — many of whom have never met another young person affected by cancer and may feel like they no longer fit in with their friends. Pushing Past Cancer allows them to meet others with similar experiences, and welcomes cancer patients from any health system, regardless of where they get their care.

Randi Benton was only 18 when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She was referred to the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center after having surgery to remove a tumor on one of her ovaries. Now 25, Benton still battles the disease with regular chemotherapy treatments. She makes an effort to attend the event with her mother every year to network and make friends.

“Because I am a young adult, I don’t get to speak to people (my age) who’ve had this (disease),” Benton says. “I’ve often felt alone. I’ve had to internalize my emotions.”

Like many others in attendance, cancer shattered Benton’s life. She’d been accepted to several colleges, including Fordham University, where she’d planned to study law. Despite deferring admission, she worries the “dark cloud” that is cancer will prevent her from ever achieving her larger goals.

While she suffers from chemo brain, Benton remains ambitious. “I want to do everything,” she says. “I’m trying to challenge myself.”

While law school may be off the table, learning French is on her to-do list, she says, smiling.

Reimagining life

DeeDee Kindley, a career counselor and event speaker, has volunteered with cancer patients and their families for years. She says that young people who experience something traumatic such as cancer and must change their life plans often approach them with new clarity.

“They might not know exactly what they want to do, but they sure know what they don’t want to do,” she says. “And they know who and what they want in their life and what they don’t want in their life.”

Kindley helps her clients unlock their passions by asking the right questions. She shares her personal mantra, “I know I can,” with people like Bains, who need help being resilient and focusing on new professional goals.

Moving beyond challenges

In July 2013, a month before she began her senior year at Sacramento State University, Bains had surgery to remove a juvenile granulosa cell tumor on her ovary. She assumed she could jump right back into her academics and progress toward medical school.

“I didn’t even think to defer,” she says, “I thought I could rest after graduation.”

Her first week of class was rough. She leaned on classmates during lab, felt anxious about exposure to chemicals, and feared her cancer would come back. Walking to class took mental preparation — sometimes she instead napped in her car after the drive to campus.

It was hard to keep her grades up. And it strained her social life. She says part of having cancer is grieving aspects of life that change, including the loss of beloved activities like soccer, and some friendships, too. Bains spent a lot of time alone reading, knitting and playing with her loyal Pomeranian-Chihuahua mix, Riley.

Luckily, a classmate introduced her to Ellis and members of the Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Advisory Board a few months after her surgery. Bains has served on the board ever since. It has given her a purpose, boosted her confidence and provided a support system outside of family.

“So much has changed after cancer,” she says. “You need people who are going to stick around.”

Bains took copious notes and felt empowered by the speakers at this year’s Pushing Past Cancer event. She still wants to pursue a career somewhere in the medical field and is hopeful she’ll get a shot at a meaningful job where she can care for others.

“After what I’ve been through,” she says, “I know I could do it.”