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‘It’s like pausing your life’: How cancer can put young adults years behind in finances and family

Fourteen percent of cancer survivors diagnosed between the ages of 18 and 39 borrowed more than $10,000, and 1.5 percent filed for bankruptcy.

Allyson Lynch (left) cuts Gillian Schlesinger's hair at Tangled Hair Studios. Lynch is a breast cancer survivor who works as a hair stylist. She was out of work for nine months during treatment and lost a lot of clientele. Five years later, she's finally built it back up.
Allyson Lynch (left) cuts Gillian Schlesinger's hair at Tangled Hair Studios. Lynch is a breast cancer survivor who works as a hair stylist. She was out of work for nine months during treatment and lost a lot of clientele. Five years later, she's finally built it back up.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

At 26, Allyson Lynch thought she was finally past the uncertainty of young adulthood. She’d landed a job at a new salon, built up a solid client base as a hairstylist, and was renting a house with friends in Glenolden.

Then, in April 2014, she was diagnosed with 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 after being rushed to the hospital multiple times for infections, Lynch stopped working. Being in close contact with clients was risky, her doctor advised.

With no income and little savings, Lynch had to move back in with her parents. She deferred a car loan she’d recently taken out. And being away from work for nine months, she lost the client base she’d been building.

“It felt like I almost had to restart my career,” said Lynch, now 31.

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. It may delay their ability to live independently, buy cars or homes, and start a family. 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. It often comes down to money.”

A recent study on cancer survivors diagnosed between the ages of 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.

Jacobs was a co-author on the study, which included 872 participants from seven medical centers across the country.

More than half of the participants said cancer treatment impaired their ability to fulfill the mental or physical demands of their jobs.

“It’s like pausing your life when you’re in treatment,” Lynch said. Five years later, she’s just starting to feel like she’s back on track with her career and finances.

Others take longer, Jacobs said. “I have a number of patients who are well into their 30s and are still living at home with their parents.”

Young adult cancer survivors earn less than their peers and lose about $2,200 a year in productivity costs due to illness, the study 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 knows that firsthand. The Drexel Hill resident was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 39. Over the next year, she had surgery and went through 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 40 and a board member for Living Beyond Breast Cancer, a nonprofit based in Bala Cynwyd.

Rivers had just become chief financial officer for an education nonprofit six months before her diagnosis. She hadn’t accrued leave, and was reluctant to ask for special treatment.

The decision to stay at work helped her cover copays for scans, which ranged from $150 to $500, and prescription medications. But the family delayed any big expenses — such as replacing old cars or buying a house.

“It kept us in a limbo of not being able to take that next step toward independence,” said Jamil’s husband, Fredric Rivers Jr.

An uncertain future

In addition to the financial burden, experts say, one of the most jarring consequences for young adult cancer survivors is being forced to reimagine the rest of their lives.

Allyson Lynch always knew she wanted to be a mom. When her doctor said cancer treatment could affect her ability to have kids, “it was crushing,” she said.

Chemo and radiation can cause infertility, and insurance doesn’t cover the cost of harvesting or freezing eggs, which can run upward of $10,000.

Lynch was able to afford the procedure only with the help of a GoFundMe page set up by her sister.

She knows she’s lucky. Still, Lynch said, cancer has changed her perspective on motherhood.

“If I’m lucky enough to have a child someday, how do I know I’m not going to get cancer and die before I see them grow up?” she said.

Experts say adjusting dreams that no longer fit a post-illness reality can lead to depression and other mental-health concerns.

Ben White grew up watching his father ride in helicopters as a flight paramedic and dreamed of doing something similar. In 2016, White graduated from flight school and was certified as a Navy pilot.

Six months later, he was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 26.

Twelve rounds of chemotherapy and two surgeries helped his cancer go into remission, but it left him with neuropathy in his hands and feet, a common complication of chemo that damages nerves and causes a loss of sensation.

White’s feet are nearly numb now, and he’s unable to recognize objects simply by touching them with his hands.

“That makes me unsafe in the cockpit,” said the 28-year-old from Chico, Calif.

He left the Navy in November.

Jacobs, of Penn, said research shows that patients who undergo chemotherapy are three times more likely to suffer financial and work-related consequences than patients who are treated with radiation or surgery alone.

“To most people it’s like, ‘You’re in remission, cool. Get back to life,’” White said. “For me, that’s not possible. I don’t have a career to go back to.”

Being a young parent with cancer

When Fredric Rivers Jr. was diagnosed with colon cancer in April 2012, his oldest son was in sixth grade and the youngest was a newborn.

“There was a lot of running around, a lot of playing, a lot of energy,” he said.

But surgeries and chemotherapy left Rivers chronically fatigued and unable to join in. “It really plays into the difficulty of bonding and developing memories with your kids,” he said.

Jen Hearn found herself in a similar situation when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. She was 31 at the time and had two kids under the age of 2.

“If it didn’t work out, they would have no memory of me,” Hearn said.

It’s a common concern among young parents, Jacobs said. Will they have enough time to provide for their kids? To teach them important lessons?

After Hearn’s mastectomy, she was told not to lift more than five pounds. That meant her extended family had to feed, bathe, and change her 5-month-old son. She was grateful for their support, but it also made her feel that she was a failure.

“I had this terrible guilt that everyone else is doing the things I was supposed to be doing,” said Hearn, now 36 and living in Middletown, Del.

She’s in remission now and nearing a five-year cancer-free milestone. But sometimes the worry persists: What if the cancer returns? What if she has to leave her kids?

She said, “It never goes away.”