At 26, Allyson Lynch thought she was past the uncertainty of young adulthood. She’d landed a job at a new salon, built a solid client base as a hairstylist, and was renting a house with friends.
Then, in April 2014, she was told she had an aggressive form of breast cancer.
No longer eligible for her parents’ insurance plan, Lynch applied for Medicaid. It covered most of the cost of her bilateral mastectomy, 16 rounds of chemotherapy, and breast reconstruction surgery.
But the chemo compromised her immune system and her doctor said being in close contact with clients was risky.
With no income and little savings, Lynch had to move back in with her parents. “It felt like I almost had to restart my career,” said Lynch, now 31. “It’s like pausing your life when you’re in treatment.”
Cancer treatments take a financial toll on most patients, but research shows that the impact can be especially devastating for young adults who are just beginning their careers. With a lack of savings to cushion the blow — and, frequently, the burden of student loans — the cost of treatment or the inability to work can set them back years, studies show. As the rates of some cancers rise among 20- and 30-year-olds, the problem is growing, experts say.
“Many people do move on and make a life for themselves,” said Linda A. Jacobs, director of the cancer survivorship program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center. “But it can be very difficult.”
A study on survivors whose cancer was diagnosed between ages 18 and 39 found that 14 percent borrowed more than $10,000 as a result of the illness or treatment. About 1.5 percent said they or their family filed for bankruptcy.
More than half of the participants said cancer treatment impaired their ability to fulfill the demands of their jobs.
Young adult cancer survivors earn less than their peers and lose about $2,200 a year in productivity costs, the authors wrote. Copays for treatments, follow-up scans, and prescription medications can rack up thousands of dollars in bills, Jacobs said. Some patients may qualify for disability pay, but that’s rarely enough to live on, especially if the person has a family to support.
Jamil Rivers was 39 when her breast cancer was diagnosed. Over the next year, she had surgery and nine rounds of chemotherapy. But she never took time off work. She had three kids to support, and her husband was on disability pay after having a liver transplant nine years earlier and surviving colon cancer three years after that.
“I thought it would be best for my family if I kept working,” said Rivers, now a board member for Living Beyond Breast Cancer, a nonprofit.
In addition to the financial burden, experts say, one of the most jarring consequences for young adult cancer survivors is being forced to adjust dreams that no longer fit a post-illness reality.
Ben White grew up watching his father ride in helicopters as a flight paramedic and dreamed of doing something similar. In 2016, he was certified as a Navy pilot.
Six months later, at 26, he was having chemotherapy and surgery for colon cancer. His cancer went into remission, but he was left with neuropathy in his hands and feet, a chemo complication that damages nerves. “That makes me unsafe in the cockpit,” said White, who left the Navy in November.
Cancer can cause additional concerns for young parents. Will they have enough time to provide for their kids? To teach them important lessons?
Jen Hearn, 36, had two kids younger than 2 when her she learned she had breast cancer. “If it didn’t work out, they would have no memory of me,” she said.
Her treatment limited how she could interact with her children. “I had this terrible guilt that everyone else is doing the things I was supposed to be doing. It never goes away.”