You might blame a way-hectic schedule and never pursue the change further. Big mistake, says Tricia (Scannell) Laursen ’87.
“Aside from a breast lump or a changing mole, most people don’t know what a cancer symptom looks like,” says the alumna, executive director of the nonprofit 15-40 Connection. “Really, the most common cancer symptom is a change in your health – and it’s usually a subtle change that persists for two weeks or more.”
Laursen and others at the three-year-old organization are opening eyes to the importance of early detection among teens and young adults, who are especially prone to missing or dismissing symptoms that may signal cancer.
Based in Westborough, Mass., the 15-40 Connection is the brainchild of entrepreneur and philanthropist Jim Coghlin. His inspiration was a startling fact: Since 1975, improvements in cancer survival rates for people aged 15 to 40 have not kept pace with other age groups. In fact, while cancer deaths declined across most demographics over the past decade, 25- to 29-year-olds saw an increase. Delayed diagnosis is often a contributing factor.
Teens and young adults “feel kind of invincible. You may think, I’m healthy today, why wouldn’t I be healthy tomorrow?” says Laursen. “In this age group, there’s a stigma – almost like you’re a hypochondriac – if you think about going to the doctor. On the flip side, physicians may hesitate to consider a cancer diagnosis in young adults who present with vague symptoms.”
Laursen, who studied marketing at Bentley, joined the 15-40 Connection soon after its inception. It was a change from marketing roles she had held in the for-profit arena, but the agenda struck a chord.
“A cousin had died of melanoma at 35, and a friend was battling appendix cancer in her mid-30s. She subsequently died at 39,” Laursen says. “So I had seen the impact of the statistic around me.”
Her duties as executive director crisscross the organization. On any given day, Laursen is meeting with supporters, directing staff, and managing budgets. Communication is a big part of the picture.
“In any new business, you need to let people know what you’re doing,” she explains. “So we go out and talk to people and do a lot of communicating over the Web and social media.”
Direct outreach to young adults is an important – and highly rewarding – focus of the work.
“Face-to-face presentations are the best way to make sure our message is received and understood in ways that motivate behavior change,” Laursen says of programs offered at schools, businesses and community organizations. Typically, she or another 15-40 Connection staff member delivers part of the educational program at a high school or college. Then a young adult cancer-survivor takes the microphone.
Laursen tells of one speaker who was attending college in Massachusetts when diagnosed with bone cancer. She held up a photograph of herself headed to a Halloween party, looking like any healthy college student.
“She said, ‘You know what, in this picture, I had cancer,’” Laursen recalls. “That was very eye-opening to all the students in the crowd. It shows that symptoms are often not visible; it’s about knowing what your ‘normal’ is and knowing if that is changing.”
Honest, peer-to-peer communication is a prime feature of clubs that the 15-40 Connection has launched at various schools. Currently, the organization is working with about 35 high schools and colleges, most in Massachusetts. Social media have greatly widened the organization’s reach. As of mid-January, the 15-40 Connection had more than 32,000 “likes” on Facebook, with many visitors using the site to share personal stories of detecting and surviving cancer.
The markers of organizational success are anecdotal but significant all the same. Laursen routinely hears that presentations and other awareness-building efforts have inspired action such as making a doctor’s appointment.
“Some people approach us and describe a symptom they’re experiencing,” she adds, noting the wide universe of culprits in such cases. “That’s one silver lining of our message: A persistent change in your health can come from a whole host of sources, and early detection is beneficial in almost every case.”
Laursen and her team are taking their work to the next level, collaborating with software developers to create a cancer education tool for use in schools. The program will allow students to answer cancer-related questions in real time and learn to be more attuned to health changes.
“Our goal is to grow nationwide,” she says. “We want people to see that taking care of your health at any age is the responsible thing to do.”