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The Young Adult Cancer Time Warp

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How most people experience life stages.

I think most people experience their lives and its various stages in a relatively linear fashion. We’re children and adolescents, and then become young adults. We finish schools, are building our lives and launching careers, and are getting married and starting families, too.

In middle adulthood, we’re maximizing our potential and trying to make a difference in the world, and trying to raise children that will become successful and productive members of society also. In late adulthood, we can finally slow down a bit, reflect back on all of our accomplishments, and enjoy life a bit more. Failure to achieve what we feel we were meant to achieve at one stage, can lead to problems and the inability to progress through the next.

All of these life stages are described in Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, which is good background reading. Most people are already at least somewhat familiar with these stages, as the popularized “midlife crisis” represents what many experience at some point as they transition towards middle adulthood, perhaps feeling as though they hadn’t lived as fully as they had hoped in their younger years. Sound familiar?

How young adult cancer survivors experience life stages. 

All of this is very normal, but what happens with all of this when you’re diagnosed with cancer as a young adult? This entire linear progression of time and life stages are blown sky high, and you experience an “entire life crisis” all at once.

When I was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 33, I genuinely feared I was going to die. After I didn’t get a complete response to my cancer from chemotherapy alone, I nearly did die from a serious complication during a highly invasive surgery trying to evict the stupid cancer cells that way. And I once again feared death after a terrible recurrence scare in the years after.

My end of life “death instincts” kicked in numerous times through these years, and what did I have to reflect back on? I feared I had suddenly and abruptly reached the end of my life, but didn’t really have anything to show for myself. How had I really lived? What had I really done? What kind of difference had I made in the world? How had my life been meaningful? These are questions that those in late adulthood might face, but instead I was facing them now, as a young adult. I didn’t have any answers, and I was panicked.

At the same time I’d been facing those end of life questions, I felt like I hadn’t been living and enjoying my young adult life to anywhere near its potential. I had terrible regrets for having lived my life so conservatively at the time of my cancer diagnosis, thinking I had all the time in the world to enjoy life later.

Cancer made me realize I didn’t, and I had to start enjoying life at full speed right now, because there might not be a later.

I needed to be young, wild, and free for once in my life, but I had yet more questions that needed to be answered also. What was I really meant to do and accomplish in this life, and how could I make a difference in the world at the same time? How could I bring meaning into my life? These were the “Generativity vs Stagnation” questions of middle adulthood per Erikson that I was also simultaneously facing, and for which I had no answers, either!

I’ve joked to friends for years I’d already had my midlife crisis very early, thanks to cancer. As I look back on all of this, I realize what a short shrift that was of what I really experienced.

Young adult cancer is really an “all adult stages of life crisis” all at the same time, and this explains the panicked rush so many of us feel to really live our lives and accomplish our dreams so quickly after cancer. Life becomes a time warp where we feel the need to engage with and accomplish things at all of the adult stages of life, all at the same time. All of the plans we’d had for our lives, and all of the things we’d planned to do when we were younger or older, all becomes right now, and it’s completely overwhelming.

Feeling conflicts from all adult stages of life at once is normal. 

I want you to know all of this is normal to experience. You’re not going to have all of the answers, but be true to yoursef. Listen to what your heart’s telling you, and not what others are telling you, nor what societies and cultures expect of you. Just be you, and nothing but you. Keep your heart and your mind open, and you’ll find the answers you need with time.

Be courageous. It can be difficult or even terrifying to make the changes and major course corrections that might be needed, but sometimes what you’re most afraid of doing is the very thing that will set you free.

Cancer survivorship can bring with it moments of clarity, where you might realize you’ve been headed in the wrong direction, or living your life the wrong way. This is what it can feel like to change course, but it’s also what will really set your soul free.

You’re not going to figure all of this out at once. You can’t; it’s impossible, so don’t demand that of yourself, and don’t beat yourself up when you don’t know. You have to let things come naturally.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I just needed to be incredibly productive in some way, and tapping into my inner talent for writing and expression for young adult cancer advocacy non-profit work just came naturally.

I’ve felt very fulfilled doing this, but ask me when I realized this was something I really needed to do? It took me a few years after cancer to figure it out, and it might take you a few as well. You don’t suddenly wake up one day as a young adult cancer survivor with an epiphany and vision about all that you need to do in this world. I’ve had some moments of clarity like that, but they’ve represented smaller pieces of a larger puzzle.

All of this takes time when we feel like we have any, and hence the panicked rush of young adult cancer survivorship. If you can’t figure things out, don’t worry. Just live and enjoy your life! (I figured that out first; what to do with myself came after.)

Where am I now as a six-year-survivor?

I know some people who have done really silly things, and have made extremely poor decisions for themselves as they’ve reached midlife. I’ve reassured family and friends as I approach 40, I’m not going to be having a second midlife crisis this year.

But if that’s not where I’m at, then where exactly am I? That’s when I realized that a part of me is actually reaching not middle adulthood this year, but rather late adulthood instead!

As I exit my young adulthood and six years of cancer survivorship this year, I see what I’ve really been through at a very high level for the first time. On one hand, I’m very proud of all I’ve done and achieved as a young adult cancer survivor through what was actually a first highly productive generativity phase in my mid to late-30s. Cancer put me far ahead of the curve, and because of that, I’m now feeling the wisdom and satisfaction that comes with the “ego integrity” of late adulthood when you feel as though you’ve been successful in these earlier stages of life.

And how bizarre is it that I feel this at the tender age of 39 rather than 65, on this warped young adult cancer time scale! There’s so much more I’d like to do, but if cancer were to take me now, I’m at peace with all I’ve done and accomplished.

On the other hand, I’m only turning 40 this year. I very much have a second life and a second generativity phase at my disposal. I have no idea what I’ll do, but I’m not slowing down too much and plan to make the most of that, too.

Young adult cancer survivorship is a very different life. 

Young adult cancer survivors are on very different paths through life than most, in my opinion. It’s normal to feel the conflicts of and the need to engage with all of the adult stages of life at once. It’s a mess to sort out, and some have to make the ultimate leap far before their time.

I know just how blessed I’ve been with the gift of time to figure my life out, such that I’ve been able to live a fulfilled life here in this realm. Not everybody is granted this, and I know this, so perhaps this gift of time has been my greatest gift and blessing of all. I pray you’ll have this time as well, and hopefully my words of wisdom can help to ease a bit of this inner conflict, and help to expedite your path to living a more fulfilled life in our time warped young adult cancer world.

God bless.

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Originally published: November 20, 2017
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