Navigating social life after cancer can be difficult for younger patients, according to a recent study, which found that adolescent and young adult (AYA) cancer survivors may see slight improvements approximately 1 year after their diagnosis, but their social functioning plateaus after that, leaving many lagging behind their cancer-free peers.
In a multicenter longitudinal study, 141 AYA patients who were between the ages of 14 and 39 at diagnosis had their social functioning measured (via a self-reported measure) at diagnosis, at 12 months, and 24 months posttreatment.
“Social functioning for recently diagnosed AYA patients with cancer was worse when compared to population norms,” study author Olga Husson, PhD, of the Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands said in a recent interview.
“Although it improved somewhat over the 2 years following diagnosis, social functioning remained significantly lower compared to population norms after 24 months.”
Nearly one-third of survivors—many who were off-treatment and transitioning into their life after cancer—reported consistently low social function over time. As these individuals go from patient to survivor, they may be apprehensive about their future. This includes negative impacts from cancer on their financial situation, body image, work plans, relationships with a spouse/significant other, and plans for having children, Husson said.
Additionally, survivors who scored low reported more physical symptoms, higher levels of psychological distress, and reported that they felt they had less social support.
In the study, 9% of participants had consistently high/normal social functioning; 47% had improved social functioning; 13% had worsening social functioning; and about 32% had consistently low social functioning.
This population is particularly vulnerable to suffering the social effects of a cancer diagnosis, as the disease may come at a time that hinders social maturation, Husson explained. This is when people develop their views of self, social cognition, awareness, and emotional regulation.
“AYAs with cancer frequently report difficulties in maintaining or making new social relationships because of long-term effects of cancer treatment (hindering reintegration into school or work) or feeling anxious about ‘fitting into’ their peer group again,” Husson said.
However, Husson mentioned that there are steps that can be taken to improve social function in young survivors. For example, AYA patients may benefit from supportive care interventions or therapy. And as mentioned earlier, taking care of the physical pain can have an effect, too.
“Reducing physical symptoms and psychological distress and enhancing social support by intervention in the period after treatment may potentially help these young survivors to better reintegrate into society,” Husson said.
Husson O, Zebrack BJ, Aguilar C, et al. Cancer in adolescents and young adults: Who remains at risk of poor social functioning over time [published online before print March 20, 2017]. Cancer.