What It's Like to Have Cancer Before You Are 25

Before you hit your 25th birthday you have your whole life ahead of you. But what happens when you get cancer and nothing is ever going to be the same again?

In the 90s scientists at the National Institute of Health discovered that our brains reach their peak size around the age of 12 and then start shrinking and changing until our mid-twenties. 

This information goes a long way in explaining why those ages are the most psychologically tumultuous of a person’s life.

The time from 12 years to 25 is also probably the most crucial time in terms of defining how the rest of a person’s life is going to turn out. School, college, university, graduate job. 

Then things start to gradually get a bit easier, you’ve started to build a life for yourself, established a career, got married, maybe even travelled the world. Then comes old age and sickness.

But what happens if you get a life-changing diagnosis before you’ve had a chance to start your life properly?

This is what happened to Jason Si Jin Loo who is now 27, from East London. He was hospitalised on the day of his graduation and two days later told he had cancer. 

Unfortunately, Jason is one of 2,200 young people who are diagnosed with cancer every year, and that is just in the UK.

For Jason, the key difference in being diagnosed so young was that he was “psychologically not as mature” as someone who is much older. 

His diagnosis came at a time where he was just about to begin his career and he felt that he hadn’t achieved anything in life yet. 

The jump from student life to getting a job is pretty challenging, however it doesn’t compare to jumping into intense cancer treatment.

“It’s easier if you’re older, you don’t let your cancer define you.”

Jason is aware of his luckiness in some ways, he knows people who are diagnosed before they’ve had a chance to complete their education and it really sets them back. 

Many young people have to defer a year of education in order to get treatment.

“You lose friends, you couldn’t move on with your life but your peers have.”

Even if the day comes and the doctor tells you there are no visible signs of cancer, there is still a constant and very real threat that it will return. 

There could be a tiny number of cancerous cells left behind after treatment which can grow and cause the cancer to come back.

Chemo-brain is a term for when chemotherapy damages a person’s ability to remember things following their treatment. 

Jason says his body feels much older than it should and he gets tired easily.

One of the most common activities for people in their late teens or early twenties is drinking. 

But Jason can’t do that, he misses out on the nights his friends take for granted. He has a rule that “before 12 he goes home” because his body can’t take it.

“You feel you constantly have to prove yourself, because you can’t do what normal people are able to do.”

So, what can you do if you know someone who has been through cancer? Jason says the best thing people can do is “have an awareness of what you can’t do.” 

One of the biggest challenges for Jason is that from the outside he looks the same as everyone else, people forget what he’s been through and that his body can’t always keep up.

Jason says he is most affected by his tiredness at his workplace, because he has to “work doubly hard to achieve the same level” as his co-workers. 

If you are starting out in an industry you haven’t yet had the chance to prove yourself, your skills and your work ethic.

If your body is drained from chemotherapy and cancer it’s a struggle to present your best self and is something that can set people back, especially considering how competitive the job market is becoming.

Almost five years after Jason was first given the all-clear, he’s recently got married on a beach in Malaysia and his hard work is starting to pay off as his career is progressing.

For others, the story has a different ending. After the death of their son, Brad, in 2003, Sue and Mick Bartlett, 53, started Brad’s Cancer Foundation. 

The charity was set up as a response to Brad’s experiences in hospital, having to choose between a paediatric ward for very small children, or an adult ward which was filled with much older patients.

In the paediatric ward they played children’s cartoons, the area was decorated in a way which was aimed at children and it was lights out at 7 PM. 

All these things made Brad feel isolated, despite this being a common problem for young adults with cancer. Sue has met many people with similar experiences through her work and she said: “to be put into that environment is very difficult.”

The problem is so bad that Sue says: “teenagers refuse treatment because they can’t stand to be there.” At the hospital in Nottingham where Brad was treated he was often put on a six-bedded bay with very young children surrounding him. 

If having cancer wasn’t already alienating enough, this environment makes the whole situation much worse.

Sue also highlighted the specific problems Brad faced being only 16 when he was diagnosed. 

He missed out on things his friends were doing and it was a particularly stressful time where “hormones rage and cancer rages.”

It was because of this problem that Brad’s Cancer Foundation set itself the goal to open facilities in Nottingham hospitals that were specifically for young people. 

Instead of being stuck on a six-bedded bay with two year olds, there would be privacy and the opportunity to be around people of a similar age. 

Brad’s Cancer Foundation started its fundraising activities over ten years ago and has raised over half a million pounds.

The charity has opened two teenage wards at Nottingham City Hospital and Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham. 

They are still fundraising to maintain these wards and in hopes of opening more across the country. Sue says: “sometimes it’s hard to keep the momentum going but we are keeping his memory alive.”

Cancer is something that changes the lives of everyone it touches irreversibly but as Sue and Jason have managed to find some positivity in the bleakness. 

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What It's Like to Have Cancer Before You Are 25