The Realities of Cancer in College

amritaAccording to the American Cancer Society, six percent of the new cases of cancer in 2013 occurred in people under the age of 45. With philanthropic endeavors such as Relay for Life and the cutting edge research at the medical school, our institution does not claim ignorance to these statistics. Yet, it is difficult to bring these numbers to life as college students. It is all too easy to live under the mantra “this could never happen to me;” but this invincibility complex is not in anyone’s best interest.

Brendan Ziebarth, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, was diagnosed with testicular cancer in June 2012. Ziebarth eventually had a CT with contrast and an X-ray to confirm, but “I actually self-diagnosed based on a lump I felt,” he said. He initially saw a medical professional at urgent care; “The doctor who saw me performed a tactile exam of the testicle and concluded in her opinion there was nothing of concern. I insisted on getting a referral to a urologist anyway. I was sure about what I had felt.”

Sure enough, the urologist diagnosed him with cancer immediately. Ziebarth believes the “atypical presentation of [his] symptoms” attributed to the initial ignorance of his cancer signs. He had surgery to remove the cancerous testicle as well as to repair a hernia he had since the age of 12. “I had caught it very early, around Stage 1a. However, [the oncologist] warned that it was hard to know if it was actually Stage 1s, in which some cancer cells escape into the lymphatic system and can come back.”

Ziebarth ultimately declined an offer to have a Retropariteneal Lymph Node Dissection (RPLND), a procedure where the abdominal lymph nodes would be surgically removed through an incision from the sternum to the groin. “The procedure was a nearly sure bet to catch any escaped cancer cells…I knew the surgery was a major operation with its own risks…but the most motivating reason I opted not to have the RPLND was a suspicion that no one was talking about the inevitable after effects of the damaged nerves and tissue.” Ziebarth’s cancer ended up returning in fall 2012, but fortunately, “…my oncologist [was] one of the foremost experts on genitourinary cancers, and had participated on the team that cured Lance Armstrong.” Ziebarth underwent a twelve-week chemo regimen, after which he was deemed cured of testicular cancer.

This is not to say students should live in fear of the impending doom that is cancer. According to Dr. Thomas Heck, co-medical director of Samaritan Breast Center and a surgeon at Gem City Surgical Breast Care Center in Dayton, OH, “Generally, patients we see are fifty years and older. As for screening, I recommend a baseline mammogram at 40 and yearly thereafter.” However, as the intellectual, global citizens that we strive to be with our coursework and endeavors at WashU, it is a disservice to ourselves to neglect personal care.

Ziebarth’s experience is exemplary of the power of self-checking and being aware of one’s body. Although only 6 percent of the United States’ new cases of cancer occurred in those under the age of 45, this 6 percent feels enormous when it encompasses someone you know personally, especially when he or she is of college age. According to the National Cancer Institute, survival rates of cancers in adolescents and young adults (AYAs) have not improved over the last 30 years. Factors that may contribute to this trend include delayed diagnoses and the unique psychological and social needs of this age group.

Most importantly, though, Ziebarth’s experience calls us to become more aware of our own bodies and to be unafraid to speak up. It can be difficult to speak up about potential medical problems or to feel ashamed, especially during adolescence. “Those feelings of fear and shame are especially true in young adult bodies that are already undergoing significant changes and developments,” said Ziebarth.

It is for this reason that Ziebarth said he is so open and detailed in recounting his experience. Ziebarth said his aunt, who is a nurse, once saw a fifteen-year-old boy with a testicle the size of a grapefruit. “I had already passed the first hurdle and conquered the fear of telling my parents and sought medical advice.” It is imperative that we not only reconcile any shame or embarrassment felt regarding health problems, but we must also foster open dialogues that destigmatize illness and instead offer support to those that need it, he said. Most importantly, we must take ownership of our health and dutifully listen to our bodies. “It was because of my insistent advocacy for my own health and my trust in my instinct and self-knowledge of my body that I secured a referral to another professional,” Ziebarth said.

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