Young adult cancer support makes all the difference: Lauren’s story

CHOC patient Lauren Aslanian was diagnosed at age 15 with stage 3 anaplastic large-cell lymphoma. Then a high school sophomore, she went through six rounds of intensive inpatient chemotherapy and immunotherapy at CHOC Hospital in Orange.

Fortunately, Lauren also was part of a clinical trial at CHOC that she credits, “ultimately saved her life.” The treatment, a national study in partnership with Children’s Oncology Group, was specific to her particular lymphoma.

CHOC’s Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Treatment Program for pediatric cancer

Lauren was treated at the Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC and part of the Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Treatment Program. CHOC’s AYA Treatment Program brings together multi-disciplinary experts to discover the most effective treatment strategies for young adults with cancer. And, CHOC recognizes the need to support teens and young adults with mental health and other important life issues.  

When cancer interrupts such an important time in life, the risk for depression is high and can impact treatment. Through the Richard C. and Virginia A. Hunsaker AYA Child Life Program, adolescents and young adults can receive support through weekly social events, education, and leadership mentoring with other patients and survivors. The program is solely supported by philanthropy through the CHOC Foundation.

One of the program’s annual highlights is the CHOC Oncology Patient Ball. This one-of-a-kind, memory-making event allows adolescent and young adult cancer patients to be themselves, forget their diagnoses and look dazzling in elegant gowns and stunning tuxedos — with their hair and makeup professionally done.

Learn how a pivot to virtual events during the COVID-19 pandemic increased access and engagement for the AYA program.

As an active member of the AYA child life program, Lauren credits it for helping her maintain optimism because it is designed to be with patients — and cancer survivors — every step of the way through their journey to wellness. It is where patients create enduring bonds with others. Out of a dire diagnosis, she found friends, hope and a future. She met her boyfriend, Nick, at CHOC when they were both undergoing chemotherapy. And, it helped Lauren decide that she wanted to pursue a career in nursing.

“Knowing that someone else really understood what I was going through made all the difference.”

Lauren Aslanian, cancer survivor

In this Q&A, Lauren discusses her cancer treatment journey and how AYA positively impacted her healing and future plans.

What did you find most challenging along your cancer journey?

The most challenging part of treatment, physiologically, was mucositis, says Lauren. My mouth and throat were basically one big open wound and I could not even swallow my own saliva. Going into treatment, I knew that I would lose my hair and feel sick, but I never expected the excruciating pain I experienced from mouth sores. I had to be admitted to CHOC to use suction equipment in place of swallowing. And because of my extended hospital stays, I felt excluded from my peers at home.

Lauren after her first round of chemotherapy

Overall, the most challenging part of my journey was its psychological toll. Feelings of social isolation are incredibly common in the AYA community, often leading to worsening mental health problems and ultimately, poorer outcomes in treatment. Though I think I have grown and succeeded post-cancer, it has still taken an emotional toll on me. One stark reality in an AYA patient’s journey is having to attend funerals for friends — I’ve lost more friend than I can count on both hands. It’s incredibly hard, but members of my AYA family have gotten me through the deaths. While I have experienced great loss, I will never regret making those relationships.

What was special about your experience at CHOC?

I made some incredible connections with the CHOC staff. Because I was on an investigational drug, the protocol required I remain inpatient for monthly, five-day chemotherapy treatments. But usually, my inpatient stays lasted more than five days to make sure I had some sort of immune system before I went home, says Lauren.

Lauren and Nick at the 2018 CHOC Oncology Patient Ball

Fortunately, I had a great team to spend so much time with. My nurses indulged my inquisitive self and answered all my treatment-related questions. By the end of my treatment, I felt like I had gone through nursing school already! My doctors, including my primary oncologist, Dr. Ivan Kirov, made it a point to speak to me and made sure I felt listened to. Sometimes physicians find it easier to speak to parents because they assume their pediatric patients cannot provide answers for themselves, but this was never the case at CHOC. I was so grateful.

How did CHOC’s AYA program impact you on your journey to wellness?

AYA has made the single greatest impact on my well-being. I am proud to credit my successes, at least in part, to its incredible community. It has given me a sense of belonging. Without the support of AYA, I would not have been able to get through my long admissions. It helped me to realize the psychosocial impact of a cancer diagnosis and the importance of peer support. AYA members always step up to the plate in times of need and I remain close to them to this day.  

Lauren with her siblings at an AYA event

When my friend, Christine, passed away, all our AYA friends wore purple in her honor. After the funeral, we spent time together at a popular outdoor shopping mall. We wore sunflower pins and ran into someone giving away the real blooms — that flower will now always represent her. I felt that she was with us, and it was a perfect day.

What led to your decision to pursue a career in nursing?

I worked at CHOC as a clinical associate/nursing assistant for over two years in the hematology/oncology department. I have always loved working with kids, but working at CHOC really solidified my adoration for them. I love their resilience and humor, interacting with their families and everything in between.

Lauren and Dr. Ivan Kirov on the day of her last chemotherapy treatment

But I guess I’ve always had an interest in medicine. As a young child, I would tell my family that I wanted to be a “baby doctor.” My mom is a physical therapist and facilitated my interest in healthcare. In high school, I joined the Medical Careers Academy but was diagnosed shortly after. I actually self-diagnosed my cancer (with the help of Google, haha!) before I arrived at CHOC — which impressed Dr. Kirov. When he asked what I wanted to pursue as a career, I told him I knew I wanted to do something in healthcare.

During my inpatient time, I was exposed to a multitude of different healthcare careers and identified the most with the nurses. I saw myself working in their shoes in the future, and decided I’d love to support patients the way I was supported.

Today, Lauren is enrolled in the nation’s No. 2 nursing program at Duke University.

For more on the Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Treatment Program for cancer