The USC employee found a suspicious lump in her right breast during a routine self-check nearly two years ago. That tiny lump began a life-changing journey wrought with pain and uncertainty, culminating in a double mastectomy on Sept. 27, 2011 — her 31st birthday.
“You never think you’ll get cancer young,” Lopez said. “I remember being at Keck [Hospital] lying in bed after the surgery, thinking ‘What am I going to be doing next year?’ I couldn’t even eat my birthday cake.”
Lopez is one of the estimated 70,000 adolescents and young adults (AYA) diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States. According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer is the leading cause of disease-related death in the AYA group — ages 15 to 39. Only accidents, suicide and homicide claim more lives. Yet while there has been improvement in younger and older age groups, survival rates for this AYA population with cancer have not improved in almost 30 years.
USC oncologists Stuart Siegel and Debu Tripathy are hoping to reverse that trend with the establishment of the AYA@USC program at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, which combines research, educational and clinical initiatives that focus on the distinct needs of AYA patients.
“These patients have special challenges being in this age group,” said Tripathy, professor of medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and co-leader of the program.
As young adults, people are just beginning to gain their independence and define their futures, making decisions about their education and careers or whether to start a family.
“For cancer to come along at that point, it disrupts all of these areas,” said Siegel, associate director for pediatric oncology at the Norris cancer center and co-leader of the program. “This unique milieu is what we need to address in the support services that we provide to this particular population.”
Siegel and Tripathy, who have assembled a group of clinicians, researchers and students, are coordinating existing services with new ones at USC and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) to improve how young adults like Lopez are cared for and cured of cancer.
In the last year, the program has helped to fund several projects, including a Keck School study focused on understanding the disparity in outcomes for AYA cancer patients in Los Angeles County, as well as the development of an AYA tissue sample and bio-repository.
Also in the works is a one-year fellowship for doctors who have completed training in either pediatric or adult oncology and are interested in learning more about AYA cancers. The doctors initiated a curriculum that puts second-year medical students in the lab with researchers studying AYA cancers and in the clinic with physicians who treat AYA patients.
“We have our first four students involved in that this year — they’re outstanding, they’re enthusiastic. We’re just excited about developing this next generation of people who are going to be entering what is really a new field,” Siegel said.
Lopez, now a breast cancer advocate, is a believer.
She was part of an inaugural group of young cancer patients from USC and CHLA to participate in a free surfing weekend in September hosted by AYA@USC and First Descents, a Colorado-based nonprofit dedicated to empowering young adults afflicted by cancer. The weekend event allowed Lopez to meet others like her and experience something that she would not have dared before her bout with cancer.
“I am forever thankful for all the people at AYA@USC and First Descents for the opportunity to experience life at its best. Despite my longtime fear of the ocean, I was not only able to stand up on that surf board, but I was able to feel completely free from my past and ready to enjoy the present,” she said. “The ‘candle fire’ discussion that we had at night made me feel that I was no longer alone as a young cancer survivor. I realized that from that moment forward, I was now surrounded by understanding, comfort and empowerment of a new and amazing family.”
It marked the beginning of a new life, she said. And that was the best birthday present she could have received.