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"You don't have to go through it alone."
That's the advice Adriana Lombardo, 20, says she would give to other young adults like herself dealing with cancer.
Cancer is a difficult diagnosis to face at any age, but Adriana says receiving the diagnosis when she was just 17 years old was hard to process.
"I went from trying out for the soccer team and preparing for college, to thinking about chemo treatments and being in and out of the hospital," she recalls. "It's a lot to absorb and understand."
Adriana first spoke with
UHN News for World Cancer Day 2015. She had recently begun treatment for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia – a cancer of the white blood cells – and shared her story about dealing with the diagnosis as a young person and losing her hair.
"Losing my hair was really tough," Adriana says. "There were days where I wouldn't look into a mirror because I didn't recognize the person looking back anymore.
"But I felt empowered when I learned about the Wig Salon."
She was connected to the
Princess Margaret Wig Salon and the
Look Good Feel Better workshop by the Adolescent & Young Adult (AYA) Oncology Program at the cancer centre.
"The AYA Program has really been a part of my cancer journey basically from day one," she says. "They've supported me with navigating my new normal with cancer and helped me find the resources I needed while going through different points in my treatment and my life."
The AYA Program
Approximately 1,500 AYA are diagnosed with cancer each year at the Princess Margaret and these individuals are known to have unique psychosocial and clinical care needs that require additional support. These needs are often related to information on fertility risks and preservation options, sexuality, school and work transitions, social relationships, nutrition, and exercise.
The AYA Program provides education, resources, emotional support, and navigation to other specialized services based on each patient's specific needs. The program is available to all patients at the Princess Margaret who are 39 years of age and younger. They can access it at any point in their cancer journey.
"When someone young is diagnosed with cancer it is devastating for them," says Laura Mitchell, Clinical Nurse Specialist with the AYA program. "Not only is it difficult on their physical health, but also on their careers and academic goals, peer relationships, and potentially their ability to plan a family."
"The program has been established to normalize these concerns and help ensure AYA can still accomplish at least some of their goals – even if it means exploring alternative ways of doing so."
Adriana became an out-patient at the cancer centre in January 2015. She would undergo 30 weeks of intensification – a more intense phase of chemotherapy that reduces the number of leukemia cells still in the body.
She then entered the maintenance phase of her treatment for 72 weeks, which ended in January 2017.
When she was first diagnosed, Adriana had to defer her acceptance to college. She was able to begin the Hotel Management program at George Brown College in September 2016.
"Once again with this big milestone in my life, the AYA Program was there to support me," Adriana says. "They gave me a bunch of information about various scholarships for young people with cancer that I could apply to and gave me information about the kinds of resources on campus I could access."
A few months prior to starting her first year of college, Adriana developed pain in her hip. She was diagnosed with avascular necrosis - a condition that occurs when there is loss of blood to the bone. She needed a hip replacement, but this could only take place after she completed her cancer treatments.
Determined to begin her college career, Adriana dealt with the discomfort. But what started as a slight limp turned into a fall on the stairs at school.
She realized she needed to take a step back.
"I came to Laura and said, 'what do I do to get myself out?'" Adriana says. "My health needed to be my priority and she just wrote me a letter and we talked about navigating the accommodations."
"Having not been able to start college with all my friends and then finally getting there and having to stop – it was hard emotionally, but I knew where to go to find the support I needed. I was connected to meditation classes and a psychologist to help me handle the road block."
Adriana continues to access various resources available through the AYA Program, which she says have helped her not feel alone.
"The program supports patients under 39 years old. A lot of big milestones can happen in a person's life in that time - graduating from high school, going to college or university, getting your first job, getting married, starting a family – but then you get hit with cancer," she says.
"You start thinking 'how can I get back on my feet or even stay on my feet?' And that's why the support from the AYA Program is great. They're like your main directory to find out what resources are out there, specifically for your needs."
She says the programming also helps build relationships with individuals at the same stage in life when dealing with cancer and it's a way to find out what has helped them cope with the disease.
"In talking to others in the program it made me realize we all thought we could get straight from point A to point B in our cancer journey and be back to normal," she says.
"But I learned it's about being in tune with your emotions and asking for help when you need it."
It takes a village
Supporting the unique needs of AYA at the cancer centre requires the dedication of various staff across many departments.
To raise awareness about AYA care and acknowledge the exemplary work of the staff at the Princess Margaret, the AYA Program is hosting its fourth annual lectureship and awards in honour of Michael Kamin Hart.
The Hart family wished to recognize Princess Margaret staff members (clinicians, allied health, service staff and/or volunteers) who demonstrate excellence in AYA care – similar to those who provided care to their family throughout Michael's cancer journey.
Michael was a promising second-year Biochemistry Masters student at McMaster University. Vibrant, intelligent and compassionate, he was diagnosed with lymphoma and died on June 5, 2011 at the age of 25.
This year the lectureship will feature a talk from Dr. Pam Mosher, a psychiatrist from the cancer centre's Psychosocial Oncology Department who specializes in psychosocial care for younger adults with cancer.
To find out the winners of this year's Michael Kamin Hart Award stay tuned for UHN's April Honour Roll at the end of April.
Adolescents and young adults with cancer often have unique psychosocial needs. To help address these, the AYA Program has a variety of resources used to support patients in the following areas: