Helping young adults and teens beat cancer

At 6 feet 6 inches tall, 28-year old Victor Quintanilla towered over most of his friends. He seemed physically fit and felt invincible.

Then, doctors diagnosed the San Antonio delivery truck driver with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

The treatment has meant taking time away from work for lengthy hospital stays. In January, Quintanilla spent nearly a month at University Hospital. He missed his social life.

“I was frustrated,” he admits. “I just wanted to get out.”

Dr. Allison Grimes, an oncologist at University Hospital, says Quintanilla falls into an underserved group of cancer patients, ages 15 to 39, referred to as AYA—adolescent and young adult patients.

Dr. Grimes serves as director of the AYA Cancer Program at University Hospital. It’s a partnership with UT Health San Antonio that includes the largest AYA inpatient unit in Texas, with a medical team dedicated to the group’s special needs.

Compared to younger and older cancer populations, AYA patients have experienced few gains in survival in recent decades.

The National Cancer Institute says they often don’t seek care as quickly because they worry about the cost. There’s limited research data about this age group and fewer clinical trials that could provide some of the latest life-saving therapies.

Dr. Grimes says AYA patients also need targeted services because of where they are in life.

“You have individuals who are expressing independence in teenage years,” she explains. “Their social group is the most important thing to them. You have young parents, newly married or in their first jobs. This is a really vulnerable period.”

There’s also the issue of fertility that can be affected by cancer treatments.

While hospitalized in the AYA unit, Quintanilla talked with caregivers about the possibility of storing his sperm to ensure he can later have children. So far, he’s chosen not to do that.

“Right now I can’t have kids. If my body heals, maybe in five or 10 years I’m hoping I can,” he said.

A recent grant from national nonprofit Teen Cancer America is providing additional staff to connect AYA patients like Quintanilla to fertility resources, financial assistance, clinical trials, and other services.

A new lounge designed for AYA patients will give them a break from fighting cancer.

Younger and older cancer populations are living longer because of the special attention they’ve received. The goal of the AYA program is to give adolescents and young adults the same fighting chance.

To learn more about how clinical trials are conducted for AYA cancer patients and others check out this information from The National Cancer Institute.

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