Living back home with the folks wasn't the plan for cancer patient, 33

Young people who have had cancer are being asked to complete an online survey that will paint a picture of how the disease affected their plans and their wallets.

Online survey looks at how cancer interferes with careers and finances of young people

Stephanie Lushman of St. John's is regaining her stamina, but she's living at home with her parents instead of teaching overseas. (CBC )

Stephanie Lushman is sure you would find her in South Korea today if cancer hadn't come along and upended her adventures. 

Instead, the 33-year-old teacher is living at home with her parents in St. John's.

I had a great salary. I had paid off my student loans, I was travelling.- Stephanie Lushman

Over the past two years, Lushman has been hospitalized for extended periods for treatment. Ever-looming fatigue restricts her work to part-time.  

"Financially I'm not doing well when I look back to where I was two years ago," she said. "It's depressing."  

Stephanie Lushman was teaching at a school in South Korea when she found out in Februrary 2016 that she had acute myeloid leukemia. She rushed back home to St. John's to start chemotherapy. (Submitted)

Lushman is one of roughly 500 people who have filled out an online survey that aims to quantify, among other things, the toll cancer takes on the careers and incomes of young adults. 

"Can they get back into that full-time employment that they once had?" said Geoff Eaton, executive director of Young Adult Cancer Canada, one of the groups involved in the survey.

"Or do they have a very different employment arrangement now?"

Leukemia at the age of 31

Lushman was 31 when she found out she had acute myeloid leukemia, or AML. 

That was February 2016. She was teaching kindergarten through middle school in South Korea.

Lushman rushed home to St. John's for treatment, her tearful parents meeting her at the airport.  

She would spend most of the next six months in hospital. 

Stephanie Lushman of St. John's prepares to roast marshmallows in 2016. She had just been released from hospital. (Submitted)

Almost a year and a half since finishing chemotherapy, she said she's doing better mentally.   

Physically, she's still rebuilding her stamina.

Lushman is employed part-time at a daycare centre but is unable to work for more than four hours at a time and not more than two days in a row without risking exhaustion that will set in for days.  

In South Korea, before she was diagnosed with leukemia, she had what she calls a dream life. 

"I had a great salary. I had paid off my student loans, I was travelling, 2016 was going to be my year to pay off the last of my debt from my credit card — 2016 did not turn out to be my year after all," she said, ending the sentence with a big laugh. 

Abandoned business 

Eaton can relate. He's had the same cancer as Lushman — twice. 

By the age of 22, he'd already started his own internet consulting business.

But that year, 1998, was when doctors discovered he had acute myeloid leukemia.

The treatments and the lengthy recovery meant he had to abandon the enterprise. Like Lushman, Eaton moved back home with his parents. 

Geoff Eaton is the executive director of Young Adults Cancer Canada. As a leukemia survivor, fitness is hugely important. He says working out means he has less anxiety when it's time for his next blood test. (Bruce Tilley, CBC )

The cancer came back three years later. Eaton spent most of his twenties dealing with chemotherapy, radiation, bone marrow transplants and low energy. 

"It definitely set me back in comparison with my peers, my buddies," said Eaton, who went on to found Young Adult Cancer Canada.

The group is now involved in the Prime study, a partnership with Memorial University's psychology department.

As of Jan. 22, 519 people who had cancer between the ages of 15 and 39 had filled out the online survey.

Eaton hopes the number climbs to 600 or more before recruitment closes some time in February. 

"This study is so important because young adults are really not on the research radar when it comes to cancer in Canada or around the world, " said Eaton.

'We're not so different'

The research will focus on other issues as well, such as the fear cancer will come back, physical health, and coping strategies.

First results are expected to be released late this spring, and Lushman will be eager to see them. 

"It will make people like myself feel like we're not so different," said Lushman.  

Her cancer is in remission and her prognosis is good but she's still in what she calls tricky territory.

Lushman is on the lookout for large, dark bruises like she had before she was diagnosed. And if she runs a fever, she's got to go to the hospital. 

Stephanie Lushman says she was living a dream life before being diagnosed with cancer. This photo shows her, bottom left, enjoying time with friends in a South Korean photo booth. (Submitted)
For now she's not making long-term plans.

A near-future goal is to make it to the top of Signal Hill when Young Adult Cancer Canada holds its annual walk later this year. 

That's something she couldn't manage last year. 

But Lushman said she has excellent support and she is encouraged that she's getting her energy back, bit by bit. 

She's especially buoyed that she was able to — slowly — climb some steps at Cape Spear recently. 

About the Author

Ramona Dearing

Ramona Dearing has worked as a reporter, host and producer at CBC's St. John's bureau.