TALKING WITH TEENAGERS ABOUT CANCER

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It’s often harder for an adolescent to cope with a cancer diagnose than it is for younger siblings. Not only do they have a deeper understanding of cancer but teens are naturally pulling away from the family.  Suddenly cancer yanks them back into the family fold while adding additional layers of stress and responsibilities.

Conversation Starters About Cancer:

  • “We have some news to share with you. I have cancer. We don’t know what we’re dealing with yet, but I’m going to have surgery so the doctors can find out more informatioin.”
  • “You know that Mom has been sick a lot lately. The doctors told us today that the tests show she has cancer. The good news is that she has a great chance of beating it.”

To Address Misunderstandings:

  •  “There are lots of different types of cancer and they are all treated differently. Even though [family member or friend] got very sick when he had cancer, it might not be the same for me.”

To Provide Reassurance:

  • “Things will be different at home when Dad’s having treatment, but we’ll be able to visit him at the hospital.”
  • “After my operation, there are a few things I won’t be able to do, like lifting things and driving. So you’ll all have to pitch in at home, and Dad will leave work early to take you to your after-school activities."
  • “Whatever happens, you will always be cared for and loved. We will tell you what’s going on as soon as we know.”
  • “If you think of any questions or have any worries, please don’t keep them to yourself. Come and talk to me. It’s okay if you want to talk to someone else, too.”

Tell the School
Cancer means changes and challenges at home that may go on for months.  Therefore, it is critical to inform your child’s school when a cancer diagnoses has impacted your family. Start with one person: the school principal, social worker; a guidance counselor; a trusted teacher or coach. That person can, with your permission and guidance, pass the word to other teachers. You can also craft an e-mail to share so you have control over what information is shared.  

Keep an Eye on Academics
Some teens are able to manage their academics, even when a parent is coping with cancer. They might even overachieve, distracting themselves from their home situation by pouring themselves into homework and extracurricular activities.

But others may struggle. Asking for later deadlines or makeup tests might be helpful once or twice. But please be aware that extending deadlines has a downside; your teen may have difficulty catch up to the next round of work. Shorter assignments are another option to propose if the home front is hectic. Is it OK to do just half the assigned math problems? Can a research project be five pages instead of 10? An empathetic counselor or school administrator might convey this message to teachers: "Please boil down assignments to those that are most essential for content knowledge. Please be considerate of the student and family at this time. We will keep you posted."

 Information for Teens

Connecting with other Teens:
It is critical for teenagers to meet and developing friendships with other children who are also impacted by cancer. Please refer to the Camps and Programs section for a list of engaging and supportive activities for your teenager.