Poor Social Functioning in Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Survivors

Key Points

  • 32% of the survivors reported consistently low social functioning over time—and some had been off treatment.
  • Those reporting low scores on social functioning also had high levels of distress, possibly reflecting an impaired ability to reintegrate into social activities due to the effects of cancer.
  • Research indicates that young adult cancer patients benefit from support programs that put them in touch with other young adult cancer survivors.

A new study indicates many young adults who survived the disease struggle with “getting back to normal” as much as 2 years after their initial diagnosis. The longitudinal study, published by Husson et al in Cancer, is among the first seeking to understand the social functioning among adolescents and young adults who have had cancer.

“The research is important to help these young survivors better reintegrate into society,” said study coauthor Brad Zebrack, PhD, MSW, MPH, Professor of Social Work at the University of Michigan.

Study Findings

Researchers collected data from 215 cancer patients aged 14 to 39 years who visited 5 medical facilities nationwide between March 2008 and April 2010. Patients completed a self-report measure of social functioning within the first 4 months of diagnosis, and again at 12 months and 24 months later. They also answered questions about their social interactions with family and friends, psychological needs, and mental health.

Thirty-two percent of the survivors reported consistently low social functioning over time—and some had been off treatment. Dr. Zebrack and colleagues say this could stem from the transition from treatment to off-treatment survivorship, a time fraught with new challenges to a cancer survivor—including the negative impact on finances, body image, work plans, relationship with spouse/significant other, and plans for having children.

In addition, those reporting low scores on social functioning also had high levels of distress, possibly reflecting an impaired ability to reintegrate into social activities due to the effects of cancer, the study showed.

“This finding highlights the need to screen, identify, and respond to the needs of high-risk [young adult and] adolescent patients at the time of diagnosis and then monitor them over time,” said Dr. Zebrack, an expert with the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy & Innovation. “They are likely the ones most in need of help in managing work, school, and potentially problematic relationships with family members and friends.”

Current research indicates that young adult cancer patients benefit from support programs that put them in touch with other young adult cancer survivors.

“They do not find being in a support group with ‘people my grandma's age’ to be all that helpful,” said Olga Husson, PhD, the study's lead author and a researcher at Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.


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