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My Parent Has Cancer

10 Tips for Teens Coping with a Parent’s Cancer

by Marc Silver and Maya Silver

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You’re a teen, and your mom or dad was just diagnosed with cancer. You may be scared, sad, mad, nervous. And if one of your first thoughts is Who’s going to drive me to my friend’s house after school, don’t feel guilty. That’s a perfectly normal teenage concern. But things won’t exactly be normal as the months of treatment go on. You’ll need to find ways to cope.

After interviewing more than 100 teens and many cancer experts, we’ve put together these 10 tips for coping with a parent’s cancer.

1. Get The Information You Need.
Jackie, whose dad had cancer, told her parents, “If you receive information and you think, This is some­thing we shouldn’t tell Jackie, that’s what I want you to tell me.” Kaitlin, on the other hand, would retreat to her room with earbuds in place to block out thoughts of her mom’s cancer.

Whether you’re an information hound or a minimalist, you need to keep up with key developments. Tell your parents the best way to communi­cate with you: family meeting, sticky notes on the bathroom mirror, a knock on your door and an update. Just make sure you stay in the loop in some way.

2. Google With Caution.
Online information about cancer isn’t always correct – or may not apply to your parent’s situation. If you have a question, ask mom or dad. If they don’t know the answer, they can ask their cancer doc.

Even after cancer rudely barges into your family’s life, you’re still allowed to have a good time.

3. Find A Confidante.
It could be a relative, a teacher you’re close to, or a friend who’s gone through a similar experience.

4. Share Any Angry Feelings.
“If you don’t talk about your anger, it can boil and boil … and then boil over,” says school social worker Melissa Ford. “You’ll snap at a teacher, wreck a friendship, or do something dumb.”

5. Social Media Can Help … Or Hurt.
Talking about your parent’s cancer online can bring support from friends. But a mean class­mate might tease you, or a self-centered one may say something like, “You think you’ve got problems, listen to what’s going on with me.”

Also, check with your parents be­fore going social – maybe your mom or dad hasn’t told the boss or certain friends, so your post could create an awkward situation.

6. Tell Your Teachers.
Zoning out in class? Struggling to stay afloat in the sea of homework? Do yourself a favor and let someone at school know what’s up. (Or ask mom or dad to do this for you.) Perhaps your teachers can adjust your workload. If you’re really struggling, see if the school would grant you a get-out-of-class pass for rough moments so you can take a breather in the guidance office.

7. Don’t Feel Guilty If You Get Mad At Your Mom Or Dad.
That’s part of being a teen­ager. One girl we interviewed told her mom, “I can’t even get mad at you now because you have cancer.” Her mom replied, “Even though I’m going through a hard time, I’m still able to manage that you get mad at me.” (Of course, your parents will be grateful if you’re nice to them whenever possible.)

8. No Need To Be Optimistic 24.7.
A positive attitude can make you feel better. But there may be days when everything sucks. It’s okay to express those feelings. “Give yourself permission to feel what you feel,” says child psychiatrist Paula Rauch.

9. Say Sayonara To Stress.
If you’re having the Worst Day of All Time, what will make things better? A run? A video game? Writing in your diary? All of these activities are coping mechanisms. Figure out what works for you, and bust out your stress-busters when you’re bummed.

1O. It’s Ok To Smile, Laugh, And Have Fun.
Even after cancer rudely barges into your family’s life, you’re still allowed to have a good time: watching a comedy with friends, just hanging out, or maybe a family game night. Your parents will be glad to spend time with you – and you may find it’s not too bad spending time with them either.

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Marc Silver is the author of Breast Cancer Husband. His daughter Maya was 15 years old when her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer (her mom is now in good health). Together, Maya and Marc have coauthored My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice from Real-Life Teens (ParentHasCancer.com).

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2015.