The Bumpy Lives of Teenagers

How seriously do you take the medical symptoms of your teenager? Aren’t the aches and pains, and the bumps and bruises the stuff of the young and the restless? Besides, kids are not supposed to get cancer and other bad things. That’s not fair play by God or Darwin. In any case, a new study reports that teens and young adults are frustrated when others don’t take their medical complaints seriously.
Presented at a European cancer society meeting, the study interviewed a cadre of 16 to 24 year olds who were diagnosed with cancer 2 to 4 months prior. Remarkably, the time between the onset of symptoms and the formal diagnosis of cancer ranged from 8 weeks to 11 years! In addition, the young patients claimed that they were told that it “was normal to feel tired,” or that their symptoms were “due to menstrual problems, fluid on the knee, irritable bowel syndrome, excess weight or lack of exercise” when in fact they had cancer.
Why is it difficult to know whether there are really important medical issues regarding their health when teenagers make that claim? First of all, in many cases, it may not be possible to figure things out any sooner than we do. Medicine is a tremendously complex field. We must deal with diseases like tuberculosis, nicknamed the “great imitator,” as it causes symptoms that can mimic hundreds of other diseases, cancer among them. Next, because it occurs infrequently, cancers are usually low on the list of possible diagnoses for youngsters. Zebras just aren’t that common outside of Africa. Furthermore, kids don’t have that many “risk factors” that alert the medical system to the possibility of cancer. They haven’t smoked cigarettes for 40 years, enough to have every doctor constantly sniffing around them for the 3 or 4 cancers that smoking can cause. In short, kids are different beasts than adults and this makes finding serious diagnoses a little more difficult.
Finally, kids and young adults (especially young men) might not be used to being sick and may not know when their symptoms are medically important. Take for example my study of men with benign cysts of the scrotum, a diagnosis that needs to be evaluated to exclude testis cancer. I found that although most affected men know that there is a mass growing in the scrotum, they do not seek medical attention until it becomes, on average, the size of a normal testicle and causes discomfort. Regardless of why, this is a terrible problem in and of itself.
As medical providers, we really need to better educate teenagers and men in health care prevention and help them to develop a medical “instinct” about their bodies that brings them to care sooner rather than later. It shouldn’t have to hurt or to be life threatening for a man to seek medical attention. And they shouldn’t have to worry that they won’t be taken seriously when they do seek care. Facing issues similar to those of teens seeking care, the Men’s Health movement is equally plagued with the problem of  trying to best serve men’s needs within a relatively unresponsive system. My tasks are clear…