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They're Young, They're Vibrant... 

And they've all beaten cancer

Erica Wieck was diagnosed with cancer less than two weeks after her 23rd birthday. A vivacious, pretty blonde, Wieck began having chest pains and itchy skin last summer. When her condition hadn't improved by Thanksgiving, her father insisted she see a doctor. An examination and chest X-ray revealed that her lymph nodes were swollen. She had a biopsy on Dec. 8. The following week, with her parents at her side in the hospital's examining room, doctors informed Wieck she had Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a form of cancer that first attacks the body's lymphatic system, then the organs. "My first reaction was I feel fine; I look fine, this can't be right," says Wieck. "At 23 it was the last thing I expected."

Who wouldn't be shocked? Cancer is something that happens to old people or sometimes little kids, but not someone who looks healthy, vibrant and in the prime of her life, right?

Guess again. Nearly 70,000 young adults in their 20s and 30s are diagnosed with cancer every year, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). In fact, cancer is the third leading cause of death among 20-to-39-year olds after accidents and homicide. In recognition of Young Adult Cancer Awareness Week (April 5-12), we spoke to some younger cancer survivors to get an idea of how life changes when you're young, vibrant, and suddenly stricken.

As if the usual young adult struggles to find their own path in life isn't hard enough, suddenly one day cancer comes along and throws a big monkey wrench into the works -- their sex drive, social life and career all take a hit. Moreover, they often feel isolated, finding themselves in the doctor's office with people twice their age, few of whom can relate to what they're going through. And most are wholly unprepared to deal with the often confusing and expensive health care and insurance systems. So just what do you do when life is interrupted just as it's getting started? According the folks we talked to, the only thing you can -- deal with it.

Speed Bump
When Wieck broke the news to her friends, they were as shocked as she was. It didn't seem possible that someone so bubbly and personable could be stricken with cancer. Solidifying the cruel and ironic timing of it all, just a week after her diagnosis, she graduated from UNC-Charlotte with a marketing degree.

"I had a great boyfriend, a great family, I was excited about graduating college and starting my career, and now I had cancer," Wieck says. "It didn't seem real."

Wieck started cancer treatments in January, going to chemotherapy every other Monday. She's like many patients in that the treatment often seems worse than the disease. During the weeks she receives chemo she's queasy and tired, and over the months has lost some of her hair.

One bright spot in all this is that Wieck had a job interview scheduled at a marketing firm the week after her diagnosis. Not knowing what her future held, she called the company and explained her situation, and begged off from the interview, saying she didn't want to waste their time. Much to her surprise, they urged her to come in anyway. It turned out the CEO of the company was in the middle of receiving chemo for the same kind of cancer, and she was hired on the spot.

Wieck is scheduled to finish chemotherapy treatments in June. She's lucky in that her form of Hodgkin's has a 95 percent cure rate, and because she is young and otherwise healthy, is expected to make a full recovery.

"I was going full force when this hit me," she says. "And honestly, I'm sick of it. I'm sick of feeling sick. I'm sick of people asking me how I feel. But I know this is just a speed bump in my life, and I'll soon be going full-speed again."

Life Doesnt End
Cheri Lofquist was in Michigan visiting her family for Christmas when she noticed a small lump on her breast while trying on clothes at a department store. She didn't think much of it, but figured she'd have it checked out when she got back to Charlotte. She had a series of tests and exams, as well as a biopsy. The following week while she was driving to lunch, her doctor called with the diagnosis: breast cancer.

"I pulled into a Circle K and just started bawling," says Lofquist, a schoolteacher. "I was in shock."

At just 36, Lofquist is relatively young to have breast cancer. Although about 216,000 women in the United States will be found to have invasive breast cancer this year, the majority will be over 50.

Within days of getting the diagnosis, Lofquist had a mastectomy. "The surgery only took about 50 minutes," Lofquist recalls, fighting back tears. "I really wasn't in a great deal of pain. But after my mom left, and I was standing in front of the mirror, and I had this big bandage on...I was like what's happened to me? Am I even a person anymore? A part of me was gone."

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