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When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens

  • Posted: 04/12/2011

You've just learned that your parent has cancer

You’ve just learned that one of the most important people in your life has cancer. Do you feel shocked, numb, angry, or afraid? Do you feel like life is unfair? One thing is certain—you don’t feel good.

"I knew something was wrong the minute I walked in the kitchen. My mom was so quiet. Then Mom told me she has cancer. I felt like I was going to faint. I could barely hold the te ars back. I felt so scared. I ran to my room and just sat on the bed for the longest time . I called my best friend and kind of lost it"
- Sarah, age 16

For now, try to focus on these facts:

  • Many people survive cancer. There are about 12 million cancer survivors living in the U.S. today. That’s because scientists are discovering new and better ways to find and treat cancer. During this really tough time, it will help you to have hope.
  • You’re not alone. Right now it might seem that no one else in the world feels the way you do. In a way you’re right. No one can feel exactly like you do. But it might help to know that many teens have a parent who has cancer. Talking to others may help you sort out your feelings. Remember, you are not alone.
  • You’re not to blame. Cancer is a disease with various causes, many of which doctors don’t fully understand. None of these causes has anything to do with what you’ve done, thought, or said.
  • Balance is important. Many teens feel like their parent’s cancer is always on their mind. Others try to avoid it. Try to strike a balance. You can be concerned about your parent and still stay connected with people and activities that you care about.
  • Knowledge is power. It can help to learn more about cancer and cancer treatments. Sometimes what you imagine is actually worse than the reality.
"I used to be a real easygoing, happy person. Since my dad got cancer I started blowing up over little things. My counselor at school got me in a group of kids who have a mom or dad with cancer. Meeting with kids who are going through the same thing helps a lot."
- Aaron, age 14

Your feelings

As you deal with your parent’s cancer, you’ll probably feel all kinds of things. Many other teens who have a parent with cancer have felt the same way you do now. Some of these emotions are listed below. Think about people you can talk with about your feelings.

"However long the night, the dawn will break."
- African Proverb

Check off the feelings you have:

Scared
My world is falling apart.
I’m afraid that my parent might die.
I'm afraid that someone else in my family might catch cancer. (They can't.)
I'm afraid that something might happen to my parent at home, and I won't know what to do.
It's normal to feel scared when your parent has cancer. Some of your fears may be real. Others may be based on things that won’t happen. And some fears may lessen over time.
Guilty
I feel guilty because I'm healthy and my parent is sick.
I feel guilty when I laugh and have fun.
You may feel bad about having fun when your parent is sick. However, having fun doesn’t mean that you care any less. In fact, it will probably help your parent to see you doing things you enjoy.
Angry
I am mad that my mom or dad got sick.
I am upset at the doctors.
I am angry at God for letting this happen.
I am angry at myself for feeling the way I do.
Anger often covers up other feelings that are harder to show. Try not to let your anger build up.
Neglected
I feel left out.
I don't get any attention.
No one ever tells me what's going on.
My family never talks anymore.
When a parent has cancer, it’s common for the family’s focus to change. Some people in the family may feel left out. Your parent with cancer may be using his or her energy to get better. Your well parent may be focused on helping your parent with cancer. Your parents don’t mean for you to feel left out. It just happens because so much is going on.
Lonely
No one understands what I’m going through.
My friends don't come over anymore.
My friends don’t seem to know what to say to me anymore.
We look at some things you can do to help situations with friends. For now, try to remember that these feelings won’t last forever.
Embarrassed
I’m sometimes embarrassed to be out in public with my sick parent.
I don't know how to answer people's questions.
Many teens who feel embarrassed about having a parent with cancer say it gets easier to deal with over time.

What you're feeling is normal

There is no one "right" way to feel. And you’re not alone—many other teens in your situation have felt the same way. Some have said that having a parent with cancer changes the way they look at things in life. Some even said that it made them stronger.

Dealing with your feelings

A lot of people are uncomfortable sharing their feelings. They ignore them and hope they'll go away. Other people choose to act cheerful when they're really not. They think that by acting upbeat they won’t feel sad or angry anymore. This may help for a little while, but not over the long run. Actually, holding your feelings inside can keep you from getting the help you need.

Try these tips:

  • Talk with family and friends who you feel close to.You owe it to yourself.
  • Write down your thoughts in a journal.
  • Join a support group to talk with other teens who are facing some of the same things you are. Or meet with a counselor. We’ll learn more about these ideas in Finding support.

It is probably hard to imagine right now, but, if you let yourself, you can grow stronger as a person through this experience.

Does this sound like you?
Many kids think that they need to protect their parents by not making them worry. They think that they have to be perfect and not cause any trouble because one of their parents is sick. If you feel this way, remember that no one can be perfect all the time. You need time to vent, to feel sad, and to be happy. Try to let your parents know how you feel—even if you have to start the conversation.
"Sometimes what helped me the most was to run or kickbox until I was exhausted."
- Jed, age 16
"I just kept telling myself that I was going to let this experience make me - not break me."
- Lydia, age 16

"After Dad got cancer, my big sister always seemed to be making excuses to get out of the house. One day, I just told her off. Instead of getting mad, she started crying. She said she couldn't stand seeing Dad hurting. I told her I felt the same way. Now we talk more and keep each other going. It's good."
- Jamie, age 13

"Experience is what you get by not having it when you need it."
- Anonymous