OPINION: What I’ve learned about when young adults get cancer

Young adult cancer affects people who are getting their lives started. People normally taking 10 steps forward each day. People like Albus Brooks.


By Matthew Zachary, special to Denverite

It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.  

Young adult cancer affects people who are getting their lives started. People normally taking 10 steps forward each day. People like Denver City Council President Albus Brooks.

Last June, the 37-year-old District 9 councilman and former CU football player was diagnosed with chondrosarcoma, a rare form of skeletal cancer. If there was any “good” news, it was that the 15-pound malignancy did not spread beyond his pelvic region. He was miraculously back at work just four weeks after surgery. Ongoing test results show his cancer remains in remission.

His Facebook post, “I have learned that cancer does not discriminate and that no matter how healthy you are, this disease can impact your life,” is exactly right.

“Doctors told me I would never snowboard again,” he continued. “So it was my pleasure to prove them wrong when I returned to the slopes this winter and triumphantly tweeted ‘I’m baaaaaack!!!’”

Among his peers, Brooks’s cancer diagnosis is not unique.

Every year more than 69,000 young adults between the ages of 15 and 39 are diagnosed with cancer in the United States alone, according to the NIH. That’s one every eight minutes. Cancer is also the leading non-accidental cause of death for young adults. In Colorado, cancer is the No. 1 cause of death, according to the CDPHE.

Young adults impacted by cancer are at the height of their careers. People like Colorado Rockies pitcher Chad Bettis.

The 27-year-old right-hander underwent surgery last November for testicular cancer. After quickly resuming his off-season throwing regimen, tests this spring revealed the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes.

Bettis remains optimistic after recently starting his chemotherapy treatment and has been given a 90 percent chance of complete remission. But Bettis doesn’t sugar coat his situation. Last month he told the Post, “It’s unfortunate. It sucks, to be honest.”

Making young adult cancer suck less is, exactly, why I founded Stupid Cancer 10 years ago. And It’s why Stupid Cancer is bringing 650 young adult patients, survivors, and caregivers together in Denver from April 27th-30th for our annual patient congress at the Downtown Sheraton, CancerCon.

A veteran of this conference is Denver’s Liz Harms, a surgical nurse at Rose Medical Center. She was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2011 at age 34.

“But colon cancer is an ‘old man’s disease’,” she thought. She felt alone and pondered going to a breast cancer survivor group.

Harms’s cancer reflects a decades-long trend, recently reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, showing that colorectal cancer rates are increasing for millennials and decreasing for boomers.

In the midst of her treatment, Harms discovered the Stupid Cancer community, read every post on our blog, and traveled to one of our earlier conferences, at the time in Las Vegas. It was then and there she realized she was, finally, “with her people.”

Harms returned home and, along with local peers, helped launch a young adult cancer movement in Denver. She hosted meetups and aided in the organization of a local young adult cancer conference. These grassroots efforts paved the way for the Mile High City to snag CancerCon from Vegas in 2015.

Every cancer story has its own milestones.

For some, like Brooks, it’s being able to snowboard after being told they would never do it again. For others like Bettis and Harms, it’s the promise of being told by your oncologist, you’re finally “cured.” Harms celebrated that benchmark this year.

On Friday, April 28, Harms will help us celebrate the first annual Stupid Cancer Day at the start of our Fun Run at Civic Park. Stupid Cancer Day will raise awareness of millennial cancer and was created this week by a proclamation of Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper.  

Matthew Zachary (Courtesy photo)

Matthew Zachary (Courtesy photo)

Matthew Zachary, a cancer survivor, founded Stupid Cancer in 2007 to address the disease’s effect in the underserved 15-to-39 age group. He hosts The Stupid Cancer Show podcast. His annual event, CancerCon, is from April 27-30, at the Downtown Denver Sheraton.