Nick Meza was 17 years old when doctors delivered the life-changing news that he had acute lymphoblastic T-cell leukemia. Halfway through his senior year in high school, Meza would spend the foreseeable future at the Hyundai Cancer Institute at Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC), California.
Meza says he felt like an outsider, at first. “Every time a child life specialist would come in, they’d bring you a coloring book or a puzzle. They didn’t have anything focused for older kids,” Meza says.
A positive person by nature, Meza still struggled with why cancer happened to him. He says the whole situation stunk. However, he didn’t have anyone going through the same thing or to talk with who was about the same age.
Things changed at CHOC in the middle of Meza’s 3 years of inpatient and outpatient cancer treatment. Children’s Hospital of Orange County started offering activities aimed at engaging teenagers and young adults. First it was simply a competition to encourage adolescents and young adults, known as AYAs, to get out of bed and walk the halls. Today, CHOC offers an assortment of social and educational activities through its Richard C. and Virginia A. Hunsaker AYA Oncology Child Life Program (Figure 1).
Meza, who at 23 is in remission and studies mechanical engineering and robotics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, is among the developers, leaders, and mentors of CHOC’s AYA program.
About AYA oncology patients
Cancer incidence among AYAs is increasing, according to a recent editorial in Cancer.1
In that editorial, CHOC oncologist Jamie Frediani, MD, says that research in the last 15 to 20 years has revealed that adolescents have not had the same survival gains seen in the pediatric patients younger than age 12 years or older adults.
“There has been a lot of interest in the community at looking at this particular cohort of patients of adolescents to young adults, defined as from 15 to 39 years of age. It incorporates the wide range of oncologic malignancies that happen during the time frame,” Frediani tells Contemporary Pediatrics.
Whereas the reasons for the lower survival among AYA cancer patients is multifactorial, a large part is psychosocial, according to Frediani.
1. Hayashi RJ. Adolescent and young adult cancer survivorship: The new frontier for investigation. Cancer. 2019;125(12):1976-1978.
2. Gupta S, Pole JD, Baxter NN, et al. The effect of adopting pediatric protocols in adolescents and young adults with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in pediatric vs adult centers: An IMPACT Cohort study. Cancer Med. 2019;8(5):2095-2103.