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Children's Health

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Cancer Signs in Teens Often Overlooked

Adolescents, Young Adults Don't Feel Their Cancer Symptoms Are Taken Seriously, Study Shows

Cancer in Teens: U.S. Experience Similar

Gregory H. Reaman, MD, a specialist in pediatric cancer at George Washington School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., tells WebMD that the situation is similar in the U.S. “And it’s true for children, not just teens and young adults,” he says.

“The symptoms are pretty nonspecific -- lethargy, pain, fever, for example. So they are generally attributed to something other than cancer, given the rarity of cancer in this age group,” Reaman says.

Young people aged 15 to 24 account for less than 2% of all cancer cases worldwide, Pearce says.

For the new study, Pearce and colleagues interviewed the young adults two to four months after they were diagnosed with cancer. They also analyzed the medical notes of each participant.

The study showed that time between when the first symptoms appeared to diagnosis ranged from eight weeks to 11 years.

Before the correct diagnosis was made, doctors told patients that it “was normal to feel tired, that symptoms were due to menstrual problems, fluid on the knee, irritable bowel syndrome, excess weight, or lack of exercise,” Pearce tells WebMD.

Cancer in Teens: Case Reports

In one case, a young woman “thought she was going mad” after three months of headaches and 12 visits to doctors, Pearce says. Finally, after breaking down and crying at her doctor's office, she was referred to a specialist and found to be suffering from neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nerve tissue.

In another case, a 22-year-old woman had symptoms such as frequent diarrhea, abdominal pain, and rectal bleeding for nine or 10 years before she was diagnosed with colon cancer that had spread to the liver.

The woman has since died.

“She felt quite strongly that if she had been 40 or 50, her symptoms would have been picked up on at a very early stage and she would have been fine, but lots of cues were missed because nobody was thinking that she could have colon cancer,” Pearce said.

In another case, a 23-year-old woman was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 10 months after her symptoms first appeared. In the interview, she said: “I wish they had just listened to me in the beginning. I’d like them more aware so you can’t just be shoved away out the door. It’s your life ... it’s your whole world they are talking about and they are not taking it seriously.”

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