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When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens

  • Posted: 04/12/2011

Cancer treatment

How does treatment work?
What are treatment side effects?
Treatment chart
Things to look for
The waiting
Who can answer my other questions?
Want to visit?

Many teens want to know what to expect during their parent's cancer treatment. This section briefly explains different treatments, how they work, and their side effects. You will probably have more questions after reading this chapter. It may help to talk with your parents or ask if you can talk with a nurse or social worker.

"Seeing my dad in pain was the worst. One day I just told him how bad I felt for him. He said that he actually looked a lot worse than he felt. I know he's having a hard time, but knowing he doesn't hurt as much as I thought he did made me feel a lot better."
- Ashley, age 15

Howdoes treatment work?

Cancer treatment aims to destroy cancer cells or stop them from growing. The type of treatment your parent will be given depends on:

  • The type of cancer
  • Whether the cancer has spread
  • Your parent's age and general health
  • Your parent's medical history
  • Whether the cancer is newly diagnosed or is a recurrence

Remember that there are more than 100 different types of cancer. Each type is treated differently. For information about the people who will be treating your parent, see the Cancer team members section.

Whatare treatment side effects?

Cancer treatments destroy cancer cells, but they may also harm healthy tissues or organs in the process. This harm, or problem, is called a side effect. Some side effects, like feeling sick to the stomach, go away shortly after treatment, but others, like feeling tired, may last for a while after treatment has ended. Some people have few side effects from cancer treatment, while others have more.

Side effects vary from person to person, even among people who are receiving the same treatment. Your parent's doctor will explain what side effects your parent may have, and how to manage them.

Write down what treatment your mom or dad will get:






Use the chart to find out more about different types of cancer treatment.

This chart describes six types of cancer treatment, how they're done, and some side effects. Your parent may get one or more of these treatments. Depending on the exact treatment, he or she may visit the doctor during the day, or stay overnight in the hospital.

TreatmentWhat is it?How is it done?What may happen as a result? (side effects)
Also called an operation
The removal of a solid tumorA surgeon operates to remove the tumor. Drugs are used so that the patient is asleep during surgery.
  • Pain after the surgery
  • Feeling tired
  • Other side effects depend on the area of the body and the extent of the operation
Radiation therapy
Also called radiotherapy
The use of high-energy rays or high-energy particles to kill cancer cells and shrink tumorsRadiation may come from a machine outside the body or from radioactive material placed in the body near the cancer cells.
  • Feeling tired
  • Red or sore skin
  • Other side effects depend on the area of the body and the dose of radiation
Also called chemo
The use of medicine to destroy cancer cellsThe medicine can be given as a pill, as an injection (shot), or through an intravenous (IV) line. It is often given in cycles that alternate between treatment and rest periods.
  • Feeling sick to the stomach or throwing up
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Hair loss
  • Feeling very tired
  • Mouth sores
Stem cell transplantation
Can be a bone marrow transplantation (BMT) or a peripheral blood stem cell transplantation (PBSCT)
The use of stem cells found in either the bone marrow or the blood. This repairs stem cells that were destroyed by high doses of chemo and/or radiation therapy.Stem cell transplantation uses stem cells from the patient or from donors. In many cases the donors are family members. The patient gets these stem cells through an IV line.The side effects can be much like those from chemo and radiation therapy. In some cases, the side effects may be more serious.
Hormone therapyA treatment that adds, blocks, or removes hormones. Hormone therapy is used to slow or stop the growth of some types of cancerHormone therapy can be given as a pill, as an injection, or through a patch worn on the skin. Sometimes surgery is needed to remove the glands that make specific hormones.
  • Feeling hot
  • Feeling tired
  • Weight changes
  • Mood changes
Biological therapy
Also called immunotherapy
Biological therapy uses the body's own defense system (the immune system) to fight cancer.Patients may be given medicine in pills, as an injection, or through an IV line.

Flu-like symptoms such as:

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Weakness
  • Feeling sick to the stomach or throwing up
  • Diarrhea

In addition to getting one or more cancer treatments, your parent will also get tests to find out how well the cancer is responding to treatment. A list of common tests can be found in the Monitoring Tests section.

Thingsto look for

Some treatments may make your parent more likely to get an infection. This happens because cancer treatment can affect the white blood cells, which are the cells that fight infection. An infection can make your mom or dad sicker. So your parent may need to stay away from crowded places or people who have an illness that he or she could catch (such as a cold, the flu, or chicken pox).

You may need to:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, or use a hand sanitizer, to keep from spreading germs.
  • Avoid bringing home friends who are sick or have a cold.
  • Stay away from your parent if you are sick or have a fever.
Talk with your parent if you aren't sure what to do.


It's hard to wait to see whether the treatment will work. Your parent's doctor may try one treatment, then another. One day your parent may feel a lot better. The next day or week he or she may feel sick again. Treatment can go on for months or sometimes years. This emotional roller coaster is hard on everyone.

Whocan answer my other questions?

Ask your parent or other trusted adults any questions that you have. Ask your dad or mom if it is okay to go with them to their appointment.

Perhaps your parent can arrange for you to talk with their doctor, nurse, or social worker to learn more. It will help to bring a list of questions with you.

When you talk with them, don't hesitate to:

  • Ask what new words mean. Ask for information to be explained in another way, if what the doctor says is confusing.
  • Ask to see a model or a picture of what the doctor is talking about. Ask what videos or podcasts you can watch to learn more.
  • Ask about support groups for young people that meet online or in your community.
"I had questions but didn't know who to talk to. I asked my mom if I could go with her to her doctor's visit, and she said yes. The first time I just sat there. The next time the doctor asked if I had questions--so I asked a couple. It was easier than I thought it would be."
- Katie, age 14
Questions you might want to ask
  • What kind of cancer does my parent have?
  • Will my parent get better?
  • Does this kind of cancer run in families?
Questions about the treatment
  • What kind of treatment will my parent get? Will my parent get more than one type of treatment?
  • How does the treatment work?
  • How do people feel when they get this treatment? Does it hurt?
  • How often is this treatment given? How long will treatment take?
  • Does the treatment change how people look, feel, or act?
  • What if this treatment doesn't work?
  • Where is the treatment given? Can I go along?
Here's space to write down your own questions:

It's okay to ask these questions more than once.




Wantto visit?

If your parent is in the hospital, you may be nervous about visiting. Learn ahead of time how your parent is doing and what to expect. Remember that they are still the same person, even though they are sick. Don't be afraid to ask your parent questions and share your thoughts. You can also call, write, and e-mail them.

"I really wanted to visit, but the hospital made me nervous. I wasn't crazy about the smell and didn't like seeing Dad hooked up to machines. I made excuses not to visit, but I missed him too much. Then one day a neighbor drove me over to the hospital after school. I took my homework and did some of it there. Dad looked happy just watching me--and that made me forget about how strange it was to be in this place."
- Keisha, age 13

Where to go for more information

To learn more about the type of cancer your mom or dad has, visit our site ( You can also call our Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-cancer (1-800-422-6237) to talk with an information specialist. All calls are free and confidential.