Natalie Martinez had no way of predicting that a routine visit to her dentist would lead to a diagnosis of tongue cancer.
“My dentist pointed out a suspicious spot on my tongue,” says Martinez. “I had a biopsy and doctors at MD Anderson monitored the spot for a few years. By 2014, it had become cancerous.”
Martinez, now 37, was surprised by her diagnosis.
“My family has a history of cancer so I always knew it was a possibility,” she says. “But I thought I’d be older if and when it happened.”
Surgery to remove part of her tongue, followed by eight weeks of chemotherapy and radiation left her mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. But recovery, she found, was even more difficult than treatment.
“The medical procedures were the easy part, because I had a goal each day,” she says. “But when treatment ended, I was sent home and told to come back in three months for a follow-up appointment. I wasn’t ready. Everything I’d been through hit me hard.”
Martinez met with a counselor who recommended MD Anderson’s Cancer180 program, named for a young survivor’s observation that “when cancer strikes, life does a 180.”
The program provides a social environment where young adult patients, survivors and caregivers ages 18 to 39 connect with other young adults affected by cancer. Together they attend social outings, educational activities and connect through online resources including a Cancer180 website and Facebook page.
“Young adult survivors sometimes feel alone,” says Diana Leipold, a manager of Volunteer and Patient Programs. “They may be isolated from friends due to treatment, and find themselves with an experience that few of their peers can understand.”
Traditional support groups don’t always appeal to this age group, Leipold says. Instead, young survivors prefer connecting in social ways through Cancer180 outings to sporting events, cooking and pottery-making classes, ice skating, movies, and more. Cancer180 also sponsors an annual, one-day Young Adult Survivorship conference where topics such as fertility, employment and long-term survivorship are discussed.
Martinez, who juggles motherhood and a career as an engineer, credits Cancer180 with giving her much-needed support.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out to other survivors,” she says. “You might be surprised how much it can benefit you.”
Heather Curl was 29 when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Side effects from a dozen rounds of chemotherapy caused lasting problems with memory, vision, and fatigue.
Curl received a flyer through the mail for the Cancer180 survivorship conference and decided to attend, mainly to gain information about navigating insurance.
“I was feeling very lonely and isolated,” she says. “It was a big deal for me to go to the conference myself, because I’m shy. But I ended up meeting a whole table of awesome people and left armed with knowledge, resources and a fresh dose of much-needed hope.”
One of the resources Curl signed up for was Cancer180’s career and college counseling service. Today, she’s a University of Houston-Clear Lake student majoring in business and accounting. Her goal is to work for a nonprofit cancer organization after graduation.
When cancer treatment ends, life doesn’t automatically return to normal, Curl says.
“People assume you’re fine once you’ve made it through treatment, but the cancer experience will be with you always.”
For more information about Cancer 180, visit its website.