More children and adults over 30 are surviving cancer diagnoses today than ever before, but teens and young adults have not seen the same advances in treatment. Seattle Children’s Hospital hopes to change that by offering more specialized care to this age group in the country’s first cancer unit specifically designed for young-adult patients.
About a quarter of the patients at Children’s Hospital are more than 15 years old. While some of these patients could be treated at hospitals for adults, research has shown that for certain types of cancer, teens and young adults have a better chance of survival when they are treated with pediatric protocols.
Heather Krich was treated at Children’s in 2006 when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 18 years old.
“My life was just supposed to be starting and there I was faced with the possibility that life could be ending,” she said.
Krich started chemotherapy at Children’s soon after her high school graduation. While her friends were celebrating in Hawaii or moving into dorm rooms, Krich spent many days and nights in the hospital; surrounded by patients much younger than she was.
“I had no one to talk to,” Krich said. “It’s hard to have an intelligent conversation with a 3 year old.”
Heather Krich during treatment
Starting next month, cancer patients ages 15 to 29 will be treated in their own unit on the top floor of the new “Building Hope” facility at Children’s Hospital.
The unit’s 16 private rooms were designed to promote independence and give patients greater control over their surroundings. Patients will get their own bathroom, shower and a refrigerator where they can keep their own food and beverages. They will be able to control the room temperature and lighting.
“You have to rely on doctors and parents so much so to have some sense of normalcy is so beneficial for patients who have to go through this at such a hard time in life,” Krich said.
The rooms are also much larger, with space for families to eat or play games and can fit two parents staying overnight.
The new young-adult unit even offers a few luxuries. Rooms come with glass door panels with multi-color LED lights that patients can personalize. They also have flat-screen TVs connected to the internet with live and on-demand programming. Eventually, there will be a rooftop terrace above the unit with a therapeutic garden just for patients.
Young-adult patients will experience greater privacy in the future while being treated at Children’s. Besides having their own rooms, patients won’t need to be bothered by staff delivering items in the new unit. The new hospital rooms feature “pass-through” cabinets with doors on the inside and outside of the patient’s room which staff will use to deliver medications and linens each day.
The young-adult unit also includes spaces where patients can meet and interact with each other. The floor will host events like Wii tournaments, movie nights, yoga and cooking classes.
“There are definitely days when you don’t want to get out of bed, but to have a space where you can go and network will be absolutely priceless,” Krich said.
Krich said it is important for caregivers to recognize that teenagers and young adults with cancer have the same needs as their healthy peers.
“Just because you have cancer does not mean you’re any different from any other young adult or teen,” she said. “You still want to be able to act your age, look your age and update your Facebook status from your hospital room.”
Dr. Rebecca Johnson can relate to Kirch’s experience. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 25 years old and is now the director of Children’s Hospital’s Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Oncology Program.
“[When I was diagnosed] there were no age-specific support services available,” Johnson said. “It was hard to locate another person going through cancer therapy who was even close to my own age.”
Johnson collaborated with Krich and other young-adult survivors to design the new AYA inpatient unit and offer more age-appropriate cancer treatment at the hospital.
“We are committed to improving the lives of teens and young adults with cancer,” Johnson said. “Opening the first inpatient unit in the country for this age group is an exciting next step in our journey.”
Johnson will also be launching video support groups in the new unit this summer that will connect Children’s patients with young adults being treated for cancer at the University of Washington’s Medical Center.
“We hope to bring together a peer group, set of acquaintances and possible friends that are all on a similar path,” Johnson said. “Just knowing that they aren’t alone and can hang out and share their experiences with other patients is something that will be very valuable.”