I truly believe in the power of young people. I believe in the profound connections that adolescents and young adults can make and how they can help heal and grow.

As a volunteer intern for WeSPARK Cancer Support Center, I’ve been incredibly passionate about creating a Teen Support Group that meets once a week via Zoom. We call it The Real Talk because we want to create a space where teens can be honest and vulnerable and talk about more than just cancer. Honestly, it’s exactly what I would have wanted as a young person.

Let me rewind. I am a cancer survivor. I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in the summer of 2014 at 15. I was terrified. I didn’t know anyone else with cancer and was treated alongside young children and older adults. I didn’t have a community, a space to reflect or feel understood. 

Yes, my doctors told me about support groups, but as a teen, a formal support group seemed boring and pointless. That’s why The Real Talk can work. It has components of a support group, facilitated by young people, includes fun games and activities to supplement the hard conversations. The cancer community I found was post-cancer. After finishing treatment, I became involved with a couple of cancer nonprofits that advocate for space, teams, treatment, and research for Adolescent/Young Adult (AYA) specifically. Teen cancer patients are in such a formative age range when they are diagnosed and require specialized support. Yet, the hospital system is only divided into pediatric and adult cancer. There is no space for that AYA population. 

After working with teens and young adults, I understood the need to create spaces for teens to feel connected and understood. The Real Talk epitomizes this sentiment. We provide a platform to have real conversations and for teens to support one another through a hard time.

In general, I am a huge advocate for mental health and wellness. The cancer experience does not end when treatment does, and I have struggled with mental health post-cancer. Whether it’s PTSD or other general mental health struggles, I have realized the importance of reflection, therapy, and different holistic ways of healing from traumatic experiences as well as transitions (i.e., my transition from high school to college). I have learned that it’s okay not to be okay. I’ve challenged myself to be completely honest when someone asks me “How are you?” and I’ve allowed myself to be vulnerable with others. 9 out of 10 times when I admit that my life is more complicated than just “good” the other person opens up about the complexities of their own life. It is so relevant and helpful. I hope to foster that reciprocal conversation with the teens in The Real Talk

In the program, we will cover topics ranging from COVID-19 to racial injustice to just the general ups and downs of the experiences of the individuals in the program. We will focus on wellness in one of our sessions because it’s essential to learn how to practice self-care and also lean on our communities when things get tough. I look forward and feel optimistic about working with the teens in our new community!

As most of you know, COVID-19 has impacted so many on many different levels. For me, it affected both the end of my junior year and this summer, so I am grateful that I can volunteer with WeSPARK and stay busy this summer while in Los Angeles! (Here’s to hoping I get to go back in the Fall!!) I am unbelievably grateful to be safe and healthy during this turbulent time. I am spending it doing something unique, close to my heart, and genuinely making a difference in our community. 

If you are a teen who has cancer or had cancer, I hope you will join me in July. Our first theme is Quarantine and Chill.

About Hannah Lottenberg

I am a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania. I am a double major in Sociology and Communications. I hope to get my MSW (Masters in Social Work) eventually become a social worker and work with low-income urban populations, specifically family and AYA. I am also a part of a hip-hop contemporary dance company called Strictly Funk; I choreograph many of our musicals on campus, am a tour guide, and the Chair of the Dance Arts Council, where I oversee the 12 dance groups on campus.