For Any Cancer Diagnosis
Q. I am 16 years old. My mother died of cancer when I was 12. I am still grieving deeply about it. What can I do to feel better?
For children and teens who have lost a parent, feelings will be continue to come up as you get older. As a 12 year old, the death of your mother was extremely difficult for many reasons that are personal for you. As you are growing and experiencing different life events such as turning 16, driving, going to high school events, etc., you may experience increased feelings of grief.
There are several things you can do to cope better with the loss of a loved one.
Allow yourself the time and space to grieve. During significant moments in your life, you will feel a range of emotions and intense feelings, and these are typical and are part of the grieving process. Give yourself the opportunity to acknowledge these feelings and work through them at your own pace.
Reach out to supportive people in your life to help you manage through these difficult times. Friends, family, teachers, coaches, school counselors, are all people who may be available when you are in need of support. While some of these people might be better at listening to you, others might be helpful by taking you out to a movie or dinner. Both types of support are equally important. Reaching out to a grief counselor or joining a support group for teens who have lost a parent could also be helpful.
Plan for special days or holidays. Your mother’s birthday, Mother’s Day, and your birthday are all days when you may need additional support. Planning a way to honor your mother on these days may help you in your grieving process.
Here are a few additional resources on coping with loss for you to read:
Q. I have a 14-year-old son who doesn't seem to want to talk about my cancer at all. I know it's hard for him, but it also can't be good for him to keep things bottled up. What should I do?
Teens are at a stage in life when they are trying to develop their own identity, sense of self, and independence. Your son’s not wanting to talk about your cancer is a common reaction many teens have. Teens may feel that their questions or concerns might be hurtful or even scare the parent. It’s important for you to keep communicating with him and show him that it is okay to talk about feelings. Keep him up to date about your cancer and treatments, and let him know that if he has any questions or concerns he can always talk with you about them.
It’s important to respect his privacy and to offer him additional support that may be helpful to him. Identifying a relative like an aunt or uncle, or a teacher, coach, or school counselor with whom he can talk more openly can give him a sense of feeling more in control of his situation, and allow him to voice questions or concerns he may not want to with you.
If you haven’t done so already, I would also encourage you to inform his school. Teachers and school counselors can be supports for both your son and yourself. They can watch for and inform you of any concerns or behavioral changes your son may be displaying, and can advise you should they feel your son might need additional professional help.
The following publications may help as you navigate the sometimes tricky territory of having cancer while parenting a teen:
- CancerCare’s Helping Teens When a Parent Has Cancer
- CancerCare’s Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer
- How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness by Kathleen McCue and Ron Bonn (St. Martin’s Press: 1994)
- When a Parent Has Cancer : A Guide to Caring for Your Children by Wendy Schlessel Harpham, MD (Harper Collins: 2004)
Q. Last week I told my son that I had cancer and we have barely spoken about it since. What can I do to help support my son?
As a caring parent you want to help your son understand what you are going through. Children want to know the facts and how they will be affected.
If your son is under 5, he is likely to ask you a question or bring up your cancer when he is most closely engaged with you one on one. His questions will most likely be brief and concrete, such as: What does your cancer look like? Does the medicine taste bad? Your answers should be brief, factual and in words he understands.
Children ages 6-11 typically are more interested in the mechanics of treatment. The “killing” of cancer cells and seeing your treatment as a “battle” or “fight” — whether or not you yourself use these images — is very likely how your son will think of your experience. Some parents are comfortable using this language; others may choose to describe their experience using non-violent imagery. Either way is okay.
If your son is a teenager, he will be wrestling with a variety of conflicting thoughts and feelings. He will want to ask questions but think it is “babyish” to be worried about you. He may feel sad about the situation but think it is “unmanly” to have that feeling. He will be certain that none of this “shows” at all but you will see it clearly in his face and demeanor. If you ask him questions he will most likely tell you that he is “fine.” Keep in mind that just because you have cancer, does not change the fact that your son is still a teenager.
No matter what age your son is, he will let you know when he is ready to talk. There may be times when you need to start the conversation because you are going to lose your hair, or need to rest more, or will be hospitalized. In these cases, be factual, brief, and use words you know your son will understand.
Here are some additional tips:
- Let your child know that you are always available to answer their questions
- Try to keep family time consistent
- Ask your child if there are aunts, uncles, school counselors or other professionals (social workers, psychologists) that they would like to talk to about how they are coping
- Find age-appropriate support groups for your children that will help them feel connected to other children who have a similar experience
Helping your Children Cope with your Cancer, by Peter Vandernoot (Hatherleigh Press, New York), is an excellent resource.
Q. My teenage son has had body-image issues since having cancer. His treatments caused him to gain weight and surgeries left him with scars. How can I help him deal with this?
During adolescence, teens often focus on their bodies and how they compare to their peers. A teen whose physical appearance has been affected as a result of his cancer treatment can often experience complex and complicated feelings about himself.
It is important to acknowledge the impact the cancer has had on your son’s life. Not only did it make him sick, keep him out of school, and separate him from his friends, it also changed his body. In a word, the cancer diagnosis “sucked.” Helping your teen voice this and acknowledging that his situation was unfair can help to normalize the anger and frustration he most likely feels.
Group Loop is an online community designed specifically for teens and can connect him with other teens.
Your son may also need additional support outside of the family, especially if he is displaying behavior which is not typical for him. CancerCare’s oncology social workers can talk with your teen (or you) about his current situation and provide individual counseling and referrals to other professionals in your area who can help.
As a parent, you may also feel overwhelmed and concerned about your teen’s physical changes. Addressing your feelings and the impact your son’s diagnosis has had on you is also very important. We can provide and help you find local support for yourself as well.
Q. I'm looking for support for my teenage son to help him deal with his sister's cancer. Can you recommend any specific places?
For most teenagers, cancer is about the last thing they expect to deal with during a time of life that may already be challenging. Adolescence can often be a struggle over figuring out who you are and what you believe. Teens tend to be focused on their peer relationships and want to “fit in,” and often look to other teens who are similar to them for guidance.
Having a sibling with cancer can make a teen feel different than his or her friends, which can lead to feelings of sadness and loneliness. Teens often struggle to understand what a cancer diagnosis means, how it will affect their own lives, and what will happen to them. Not being able to talk with friends going through something similar might leave them feeling scared and overwhelmed.
Check with a social worker at the hospital or treatment center where your daughter is receiving treatment to find out about any support programs specifically for siblings that might be offered there or by local organizations.
SuperSibs! provides support services, including camps and care packages.
Lastly, I’d suggest reading our booklet, Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer.
For Pancreatic Cancer
Q. I was diagnosed last fall with Stage 2 pancreatic cancer. The survival rates are not great, but I am quite hopeful. My 18-year-old daughter, however, has told me that she cannot be hopeful because she can't handle being let down if I die. While this makes sense to me, what can I do to help her?
Everyone responds differently to a cancer diagnosis — some people are optimistic, and others, like your daughter, are afraid to be hopeful. Your ability to respect your daughter’s views and understand the difficulty she is having with your diagnosis is important. While you may not be able to change her outlook, you can be supportive of her through this challenging situation.
Encourage your daughter to share her thoughts and feelings about your diagnosis with you. What are her fears? Worries? Hopes? Allowing her to express her feelings freely can provide you with the opportunity to talk openly about your situation. You can even start the conversation by sharing your own worries, hopes, and fears with her. Telling her that you, too, have uncertainties will help to validate her feelings and make it easier for her to open up.
Communication is the key for families coping with cancer. By opening up to your daughter, you are showing her that it’s okay to discuss her feelings. The fact that she has expressed her fears about being let down indicates that she feels the two of you have a trusting relationship. It is understandable that you want your daughter to be optimistic; however, your being able to accept her fears gives her permission to share exactly how she is feeling.
Teens often struggle talking with their parents about illness. Look to adult relatives, teachers, and coaches as potential sources of support for your daughter. She may also benefit from talking one-on-one with a counselor. She can call us and speak with an oncology social worker and we can also help her find local support services.
Your daughter might also find helpful resources online that are specifically designed for teens with a parent with cancer, such as Cancer Really Sucks.
For yourself, CancerCare offers a telephone support group for people with pancreatic cancer. This is a safe place to discuss all the concerns and issues that arise from your diagnosis. Please contact us at 1-800-813-HOPE (4673) for more information.