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Cancer Signs in Teens Often Overlooked

Adolescents, Young Adults Don't Feel Their Cancer Symptoms Are Taken Seriously, Study Shows
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 9, 2009 -- About three years ago, Jay Wheeler, now 17, started having serious headaches and becoming increasingly forgetful. Over the next four months, he was sent to detention 52 times; the British youngster kept forgetting to ask his mother to sign the slip, earning another detention.

Jay’s teachers ascribed his behavior to that of a difficult teenager, but his mother knew something was wrong. Five trips to the doctor didn’t help, though; Jay was misdiagnosed with conditions ranging from stress headaches to migraines. Meanwhile, Jay started getting pains in his neck and arms that caused him to stoop.

More than eight months went by before Jay was seen by a pediatrician who suspected cancer could be causing his symptoms. A CT scan confirmed the diagnosis. Jay was rushed by ambulance to Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, where he had emergency surgery for an advanced brain tumor.

The delayed diagnosis led to a longer, more intense course of treatment than would otherwise have been needed, according to his physicians. Six months of radiation and 18 months of intensive chemotherapy severely affected Jay’s short-term memory and impaired his hearing.

Although he is now back in school, Jay tells WebMD that he still gets “quite tired. And I believe I would have recovered more quickly had my symptoms been taken seriously from the start,” he says.

Cancer in Teens: Ruled Out on Age Alone

Jay’s experience is not uncommon. In the first study of its kind, British researchers have found that teen and young adult cancer patients often feel frustrated that their symptoms are not taken seriously.

The research, composed of interviews with 24 cancer patients aged 16 to 24, was presented at a meeting of the European Cancer Organization and the European Society of Medical Oncology in Berlin.

"While symptoms in some young people were promptly recognized by general practitioners and referred to specialists quickly, other patients recounted tales of protracted periods of suffering, with rationalization of their own symptoms or numerous disappointing visits to doctors and hospitals before the cancer was diagnosed,” says lead researcher Susie Pearce, a health service researcher for young people with cancer at University College Hospital in London.

“One consistent thread through these stories is young people’s perception that they were not being listened to and that cancer was being ruled out on age alone,” she says.

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.

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