Health Team

Duke Cancer Institute makes strides in addressing unique needs of teen and young adult cancer patients

Posted January 16, 2019 5:52 p.m. EST
Updated January 16, 2019 7:20 p.m. EST

— Applause bounced off the glass windows, the hard floor, the walls and ceiling of The Duke Cancer Center lobby.

The removal of a large black cloth covering an over-sized cardboard check prompted the clapping after participants were able to see the $400,000 listed in the amount box, a generous donation from Teen Cancer America and First Citizens Bank to the Duke Cancer Institute.

The money will be used in the Teen and Young Adult Oncology program, specifically targeting cancer patients who are 15 to 29 years old.

“At that age range,” said Shannon Voelkel, “you're going through high school, college, there's just a list of things that go on, you're ever changing in those years."

Voelkel knows all about cancer, she was diagnosed when she was 23. She was treated alongside geriatric cancer patients.

She was too old for the pediatric wing, but too young to be where she was, “It was isolating, it stunk, it truly stunk.”

Now Voelkel works with Duke as a peer counselor, helping other young adults and teen as they deal with their diagnosis.

Derek Maner is a patient she works with. He was 28 years old when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer five years ago.

In his 20's, Maner felt as if he didn't fit the mold the hospital had made for cancer patients.

On one side there were colorful walls and cartoon characters, the other was overly geriatric.

“It was either I was surrounded by children, or I was surrounded by people who trumped me by 50 years,” he said.

The age gap between pediatric and geriatric cancer patients is where the Duke TYAO program is aimed. “Generally speaking, we have not thought about young adults and teenagers as a group of people that have particular special needs that need to be attended to,” said Steven Patierno, the deputy director of the Duke Cancer Institute.

The Duke cancer center treats hundreds of teen and young adult patients, a group Patierno notes needs more than just health care.

“So this program will also focus on events and opportunities to bring cancer patients in that age group together, so they build a sense of community.”

It's a community that now is being recognized with their own identity. “I think that's the biggest part of this, knowing you're not alone in this, and you have other people fighting the same battles,” Maner said.

The Money from Teen Cancer America and First Citizens Bank will fund programs such as a Medical Family Therapist, Psychologist and age appropriate activities for the patients.