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How the Media Perceives Cancer

He turned to her and said “Perhaps okay will be our always.” “Okay,” she replied. This dialogue from “The Fault in Our Stars” denotes the tragic love story of two teenagers fighting cancer amidst their inevitable death in their futures. Similarly, ABC family’s “Chasing Life” focuses on a young journalist struggling with the uncertainties of her new diagnosis. Although it is important to feature these cancer struggles, the media tends to hone in only on what happens once an individual becomes a “patient.” But, what about the person’s journey toward becoming one, i.e. becoming aware that something was wrong with their health in the first place?

The summer blockbuster “The Fault in Our Stars” showcases Augustus Waters, an osteosarcoma (bone cancer) victim, who befriends terminal thyroid cancer patient, Hazel Grace. They help each other uncover the meaning of life, as well as cope with one another’s imminent fates. Washington Post writer, Jen Chaney, suggests that this tearjerker represents a new era in movie fandom. In place of the cliché vampire and sci-fi franchises, these down-to-earth, relatable, stories are increasing in popularity. In fact, fans are so emotionally involved in TFIOS, and new shows like “Chasing Life”, because they portray valiant protagonists fighting for their lives.

Audiences are drawn to these plot lines because most people, especially young adults have been affected by cancer from either a personal experience or a loved one’s diagnosis. This is evidenced by the box office sales. TFIOS made $48,200,000 the opening weekend (movietickets.com).

Nicholas Sparks’ novels and their film adaptations, like Safe Haven and The Last Song, focus on characters’ struggles with cancer from their initial diagnosis onward. Even in the series premiere of the new drama “Chasing Life,” April, the protagonist, spends the entire pilot building up the courage to share her recent diagnosis with her loved ones. Her diagnosis did not even occur during a routine checkup. She was unexpectedly examined after she passed out from donating blood at a local hospital. Unfortunately, many young adults are unaware that cancer does not discriminate and that they are not immune. Cancer can be a serious, life-threatening disease that is very personal and real to people. However, 90% of cancers are curable if identified in its early stages. The media fails to address that we all have this amazing opportunity to tune into our own health because WE are the experts on what our normal health looks and feels like. In these instances early detection is key. These warning signs could be any subtle but persistent change in your normal health.

The media tends to overly glamorize these somber diagnoses and inevitable death sentences. In reality, young adults are unaware of the fact that being diagnosed with cancer is possible. The media fails to show main characters that exhibit healthy and proactive life choices and don’t focus on early warning signs. Although there’s no perfect list of cancer symptoms (because each one of us has a physiology unique to ourselves and sometimes the same diagnosis can present different red flags in different people), there is indeed a perfect description of a general cancer symptom- a subtle but persistent change in your normal health. TV shows, movies, and even books could be profoundly powerful media to convey the importance of tuning into your normal health, so you’re equipped to recognize persistent changes. If you notice a change in sleeping patterns, energy level, weight range, skin appearance, digestion, lumps or bumps that didn’t use to be ther, and it doesn’t return to normal in two weeks, it’s is time to get it checked out!

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Improvements in 15 to 40-year-olds cancer survival rates have not changed since 1975.  For these teens and young adults it is mainly because of delayed diagnosis. Young adults are unaware that any subtle change in your health that persists for at least two weeks could be a cancer symptom. 15-40 Connection empowers individuals to take personal responsibility about their health.

For instance, at age 18, cancer survivor Brian Regan found a tumor that his doctor dismissed as nothing. However, the college student followed his gut feeling and insisted that the doctor do another test to verify this. The ultrasound results affirmed that he had a tumor and later surgery confirmed that he had testicular cancer. In fact, if he had waited, the cancer would have progressed much further. 19-year old Meghan Rothschild had a similar situation. A mole on her abdomen had changed. It had become consistently itchy. She set up an appointment to get checked, but her doctor insisted it was nothing. She felt something wasn’t right and demanded that it was biopsied. She later found out that she had stage 2 melanoma. Stephanie Carliss struggled with an unexpected weight gain and increasing lethargy for years. After a stream of increased medication regimes, her doctor told her “you just need to admit that you are overweight and lazy!” After hearing that she demanded she have her records and left ASAP. She found another doctor and learned that she had papillary thyroid cancer.

Although trusting your instincts is vital for early cancer detection, being embarrassed by your symptoms and dismissing them is also a barrier that we must learn to overcome. 23-year old college professor, Rob Russo experienced severe back pain after a mountain biking trip, but just wrote if off as sleeping wrong. He later noticed a growth on his right testicle that was becoming more painful with daily activities. At first he thought it would just go away, but six months later he got it checked out to learn that he had stage 2 testicular cancers. His delay had given it time for the cancer to spread.

After dealing with these traumatic experiences these cancer survivors all want to encourage others to listen to yourself and be proactive about your health because it could safe your life. They continue to advocate the importance of trusting your instincts and speaking up for yourself. Although subtle health changes could be nothing, tuning into your own body and recognizing early symptoms could save your life and ultimately increase survival rates for young adults.

For more information on young adult cancer awareness, early detection, or the 15-40 Connection, visit www.15-40.org.

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