Talking with millennials about cancer

When you’re young and on top of the world, cancer is likely the last thing on your mind. And yet, cancer rates for millennials and Gen Xers appear to be on the rise. One study from the American Cancer Society last year found that colorectal cancer rates are on the increase for young and middle-age adults. Rectal cancer rates, researchers found, are “increasing particularly fast,” as 3 in 10 rectal cancer diagnoses are made in patients younger than 55.

Three-hospital Inspira Health Network, based in Mullica Hill, N.J., is seeing that national trend manifest itself. The system has seen an uptick in cancer diagnoses for younger patients. As such, it has launched a Millennial Advisory Committee that, while not tied directly to cancer, will be used partly as a vehicle to better understand and treat millennials with cancer diagnoses.

Shailja Roy, M.D., a medical oncologist who’s affiliated with Inspira, says that the data were eye-opening. She recalls seeing a patient in his 20s recently who presented with rectal bleeding and had no idea that it was cancer. Roy believes hospitals need to build better cancer awareness among the millennial population, and she says that starts by encouraging them to get screened.

“When we are young, we think we are invincible,” she says. “When I was 20, I thought nothing bad is ever going to happen to me. Cancer is the last thing on your mind.”

Inspira rolled out the Millennial Advisory Committee last fall, with plans to create similar bodies for other age groups. The committee consists of about 15 or so men and women from across the organization who meet quarterly to discuss perspectives and research the impact of care on those born between 1980 and 2000.

Cancer has been one key focus for the MAC in its early days. One early takeaway is the importance of fertility preservation for younger patients who are being treated for cancer, Roy says. As such, Inspira recently launched a new program that has female cancer patients also meet with a gynecologist to discuss such concerns.

Sarah Graham, a brand manager in Inspira’s marketing department and member of the MAC, says members learned early on that millennials interact with brands differently from how other generations do. Millennials are, perhaps, much more focused on the “why,” she says, and may want to know why, for example, an appointment is delayed and what the health system is doing to rectify it. Graham is eager to learn more about that “why” for millennials and find better ways to serve them in cancer care and beyond.

“Health care is not a one-size-fits-all model. You’ve got to be able to relate to a generation like millennials and stay on top of the needs of modern-day, evolving society,” she says.