THEY are still finding out who they are and some may have booked their tickets to go travelling or be off to university.
But confronted with a diagnosis of cancer, this can turn those carefully laid plans upside down.
This is the situation faced by around 100 young people across the south each year.
Nurse Louise Hooker has seen first hand the variety of different ways the disease can affect them and how they cope.
And that’s why she is so passionate about the new unit being built in Southampton.
Louise is the Teenage Cancer Trust Lead Nurse for the Teenage and Young Adult Cancer Service at Southampton General Hospital.
As such, she has been heavily involved in the Teenage Cancer Trust’s plans for a state-of-the-art specialised teenage cancer unit at the hospital.
Work began late last year on the £2.4m scheme, which will see a state of the art ten-bed unit for young cancer patients aged 16 to 24 from across the south.
The Daily Echo-backed fundraising campaign has seen thousands raised in the community, but £158,000 is still needed.
The unit is designed to give young people a home from home environment and somewhere where they will be treated alongside people of their own age.
At present they are either treated alongside children or older adults.
Louise, who has been working with children and young people with cancer since 1989, said it was important to recognise that the experience was different for a teenager or young person.
“It’s a very different place developmentally, socially and emotionally,” she said.
“These teenage and young adult years are a particularly vulnerable time for young people – they’re trying to work out their own identity and role in the world and are going through a lot of challenges with their education and future life.
“They’re very future orientated, starting to make plans about their future life, what that might hold, so cancer presents a particular problem.
“It’s asking them to put their whole lives on hold.
“What they were planning to do whether in the short-term or longterm can be potentially altered by a diagnosis.”
L o u i s e says the experience may lead teenagers to re-assess goals and priorities, while for others the consequences of their treatment leave them less physically able than before.
She has seen some youngsters continue their studies and achieve despite their condition, while others will be forced to take a year out.
Louise said that teenagers do not have the helpful life experience of someone older, but cancer can also present more logistical challenges.
A young person may be in less secure work or accommodation than someone older, at university in another part of the country and some are parents themselves.
For many, Louise said there is a real sense of shock, for both the patient and their families.
“Typically cancer is something that doesn’t happen to people in this age group,” she said.
“People have an awareness of cancer in the older people and may have heard about young children getting cancer or leukaemia.”
And for this reason, another big question for many young people to deal with is “why me?”, said Louise.
It is the rarity of cancer among this age group that means the services available meets the needs the majority of sufferers, much older adults, and teens will f i n d themselves on wards which have predominantly older people or the oldest on a children’s ward.
At this stage in their lives when relationships with their peers are so important, this can be an isolating experience, Louise said.
The team at Southampton General Hospital work hard to keep patients linked in with their education or working life where possible and with their friends and their life before cancer.
“I don’t think we can underestimate the importance of young people knowing they’re not alone in this experience,” said Louise.
“With the unit we’re building at the moment, this will be the first time that young people in this part of the country will be able to be treated in a unit specifically designed for young people with cancer.
“Particularly in this age group the support of other young people and encouragement from other young people who really understand what it’s like is a powerful and important thing.”
Designed with input from teenagers treated for cancer, the Teenage Cancer Trust unit will have six en-suite inpatient bedrooms, which will allow a family member or friend to stay over, and four day care spaces.
With more beds than before, the unit should be able to treat more young people, who come from Hampshire, Dorset, the Channel Islands, South Wiltshire, the Isle of Wight and West Sussex.
The ward hopes to recruit nurses who particularly want to work with young people, who will be given additional training along with medical staff to work well with their teenage patients.
There will be social and recreation areas, as well as with a kitchen, where young people can make drinks and snacks, and dining area, plus a parent/family sitting room.
Louise said teens can watch television, play computer games or pool and get together with other young people as well as invite their friends to visit.
“I hope the first thing when you walk through the front door of the unit is that it won’t feel as much like a hospital as far as we can make it,” she added.
- If you would like to support Teenage Cancer Trust’s Southampton unit appeal please contact Beth Bartlam on 07943 923549 or email beth.bartlam@ teenagecancertrust.org.