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When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens

  • Posted: 04/12/2011

Learning about cancer

What is cancer?
Why do people get cancer?
Can doctors cure cancer?

Learning about cancer will help you understand what your parent is going through. Knowing more about cancer and how it’s treated can take some of the fear away. Some of what you have seen or heard about cancer may not apply to your parent. Most people feel better when they know what to expect.

"When Dad told me he had cancer, I got really scared. Everything I'd always heard about cancer was just terrible. Then I thought, 'Hey, what do I really know about cancer?' The answer was, 'Not much.' So I started reading books and stuff on the Internet. My dad even told me that some of what I found on the Web wasn't right for the kind of cancer he has. Cancer is still pretty scary, but I've learned that people survive it. I'm not so afraid anymore."
- Abdul, age 14
Here are a few things to remember:
  • Nothing you did, thought, or said caused your parent to get cancer.
  • You can’t catch cancer from another person.
  • Scientists are discovering new and better ways to find and treat cancer.
  • Many people survive cancer.

Whatis cancer?

Doctors have found more than 100 different types of cancer. Cancer is a group of many related diseases that begin in cells, the body’s basic unit of life. To understand cancer, it’s helpful to know what happens when normal cells become cancer cells.

Normally, cells grow and divide to make more cells only when the body needs them. This orderly process helps keep the body healthy. Sometimes, however, cells keep dividing when new cells aren’t needed. These extra cells form a mass of tissue called a growth, or tumor. Tumors can be benign or malignant. Some cancers do not form a tumor. For example:

  • Benign tumors aren’t cancer. They can often be removed and don’t spread to other parts of the body.
  • Malignant tumors are cancer. Cells in these tumors are abnormal and divide and grow without control or order. They can invade and damage nearby tissues and also spread to organs in other parts of the body. The spread of cancer from one part of the body to another is called metastasis.

Cancer Cells

Most cancers are named for the organ or type of cell in which they begin. For example, cancer that begins in the lung is called lung cancer.

Whydo people get cancer?

The causes of most cancers are not known. Scientists are still learning about things that may put people at a higher risk for certain types of cancer. Risk factors for cancer include age, a family history of certain cancers, use of tobacco products, being exposed to radiation or certain chemicals, infection with certain viruses or bacteria, and certain genetic changes.

Although no one can tell the future, it is good to keep in mind that most cancers are not passed down from parent to child. That is, they are not inherited. However, a family history of cancer can sometimes be a risk factor. It may help to talk with your parent or a doctor to learn more about the kind of cancer that your parent has.

Candoctors cure cancer?

Every year scientists discover better ways to treat cancer. That means many people are successfully treated for cancer. However, doctors are careful not to use the word “cure” until a patient remains free of cancer for several years. Cancer treatment may cause a remission, which means that the doctor can’t find signs of cancer. But sometimes the cancer comes back. This is called a relapse or recurrence. Whether your parent can be cured of cancer depends on many things, and no booklet can tell you exactly what to expect. It is best to talk with your parent and his or her doctor or nurse.

Where to go for more information
To learn more and get answers to your questions, you can contact NCI through its:

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"Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others."
-Aristotle