Support for Teens When a Family Member Has Cancer
If you are a teen and your parent or sibling has cancer, this information can help prepare you for some of the things you may face in the coming months. While there is a team of people working hard to help your family member get better, there are also people available to help you. No one should go through this experience feeling alone.
You may want to talk with others in your family about the information you find on this page. It may help you bring up something that’s on your mind. For starters, focus on these facts:
- Many people survive cancer. There are over 14 million cancer survivors in the U.S. and scientists are discovering better cancer treatments.
- You are not alone. Right now, it might seem that no one else in the world feels the way you do. In a way, you are right. No one can feel exactly like you do. But it might help to know that many teens have a family member with cancer. Talking to other teens who are facing similar challenges may help you sort out your feelings.
- Balance is important. Many teens feel like the experience of having a sibling or parent with cancer is always on their mind. Others try to avoid it altogether. Try to strike a balance. You can be concerned and still stay connected with friends and activities that you care about.
- Knowledge is power. It can help to learn more about the type of cancer your family member has and how it will be treated. Sometimes what you imagine is actually worse than the reality.
- You can give comfort. Sometimes you will be strong for your family and sometimes people in your family will be strong for you.
Finding Ways to Cope When a Family Member Has Cancer
If your parent or sibling has cancer, you may have a range of feelings. Some days will be good, and things might seem like they used to. Other days may be harder. There is no one "right" way to feel. When someone in your family has cancer it can change the way you look at things in life. In this section we look at some common emotions and ways to cope.
It may be hard to share your feelings. You may ignore them and hope they will go away. Holding your feelings inside can prevent you from getting the help you need. Some emotions that teens feel when a family member has cancer are:
- Scared: It's normal to feel scared. Some of your fears may be real. Others may be based on things that won't happen. Some fears may lessen over time.
- Angry: Anger often covers up other feelings that are harder to show. If having cancer in your family means you can't do what you like to do, it’s tough. Don’t let anger build up.
- Neglected: Your family's focus may be changing. Find a time to tell your parents how you feel and what you think may help. Remember that you are important and loved and that you deserve to feel that way, even though you might not get as much attention now.
- Lonely: We look at some things that may help you deal with changes in friendships further down the page, in the section on You and Your Friends. For now, try to remember that these feelings won't last forever.
- Embarrassed: Many teens who felt embarrassed about having a family member with cancer say it gets easier to deal with over time.
- Guilty: You might feel bad about having fun when your sibling or parent is sick. This shows how much you care about them. However, having fun doesn’t mean that you care any less. It’s both okay and important for you to do things that make you happy.
Some teens try to be perfect and not cause trouble. They want to protect their parents and not give them one more thing to worry about. 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. Other teens may get the wrong kind of attention from the wrong people—which ends up hurting them and their family in the long run.
Try to let your parents, or another trusted adult, know how you feel. It is probably hard to imagine right now, but, if you let yourself, you can grow stronger as a person through this experience. Some teens have found that having a family member with cancer changes the way they look at life. Some said this experience helped them to become stronger and more appreciative, over time.
These tips can help you cope during this difficult situation:
- Write down your thoughts in a journal. Research has found this really works!
- Join a support group to meet other kids who are facing some of the same things you are. Who knows, you might get some good advice.
- Find a friend who’s a really good listener and who cares about you. Talk with a teacher at school. Meet with a counselor either in or out of school.
- You can learn about more ways to find support in Chapter 10 of When Your Brother or Sister Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens or in Chapter 7 of When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens.
Managing Stress When a Family Member Has Cancer
You may be so focused on your family member with cancer that you don't think about your own needs, or if you do, they don't seem important. But, they are! It's important to "stay fit"—both inside and out.
These tips have helped others deal with stress. Pick one or two things to do each week:
- Stay connected. Stay involved with sports, clubs, or other activities you enjoy.
- Relax and get enough sleep. Take breaks. You will have more energy and be in a better frame of mind. Get at least 8 hours of sleep. Pray or meditate. Make or listen to music.
- Help others. Join a walk against cancer. Plan a charity event to collect money.
- Avoid risky behaviors. Stay away from smoking, drinking, and other risky behaviors.
- Put your creative side to work. Keep a journal to write down your thoughts and experiences. Draw, paint, or take photographs. Read about people who have made it through tough times. Get inspired by what they achieved and who they became.
- Eat and drink well. Drink plenty of water each day. Grab fresh fruit, whole-grain breads, and lean meats like chicken or turkey when you have a choice. Avoid foods that have a lot of sugar.
- Be active. Exercise can make you feel better. Play a sport or walk to improve your mood.
It's normal to feel sad or "blue" during difficult times. However, if these feelings last for 2 weeks or more and you no long enjoy things you used to love, you may be depressed. Learn about ways to “Get help when you feel down and out” at the end of Chapter 6 in When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens or at the end of Chapter 8 in of When Your Brother or Sister Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens.
Learning What to Expect
Learning about cancer and how it’s treated can help you prepare for the days ahead. This may help you to feel less anxious. Some of what you have seen or heard about cancer may not apply to your family member. Keep in mind that cancer is a group of related diseases – not just one disease. Doctors have found more than 100 different types of cancer. Each has different treatments and different outcomes. You can learn more about cancer and how it’s treated in chapter 2 and 3 of When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens and in chapters 2 and 3 of When Your Brother or Sister Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens. You can also learn more about becoming a stem cell donor, in chapter 4.
I was so scared when I found out that my brother had cancer. Then we learned from his doctor that most kids survive this type of cancer.
You and Your Family After a Cancer Diagnosis
Your family may be going through many changes. You may be the oldest, youngest, or middle child in your family. You may live with one parent or two. Whatever your family situation, chances are things have changed since your sibling or parent was diagnosed with cancer. You may be asked to take on more responsibility. You might resent it at first. Then again, you may learn a lot from the experience and grow to appreciate the trust your parents have in you.
Do any of these sound familiar?
- Are you doing more chores?
- Are you home alone more?
- Are you spending more time with relatives?
- Are you spending more time making dinner or doing laundry?
- Do you want to hang out with friends when you are needed at home?
- Do you try to protect your parents from anything that might worry them?
Changing Routines and Responsibilities
Whatever your family situation, chances are that things have changed since your sibling or parent got sick. Let your parents know if you feel that there is more to do than you can handle. Together, you can work it out. Teens who said that their families grew closer say that it happened because people in their family:
- Tried to put themselves in the other person's position and thought about how they would feel if they were the other person
- Understood that even though people react differently to situations, they were all hurting. Some cried a lot. Others showed little emotion. Some used humor to get by.
- Learned to respect and talk about differences. The more they asked about how others were feeling, the more they could help each other.
Families say that it helps to make time to talk together, even if it’s only for a short time each week. Talking can help your family stay connected and sort things out. Some teens want to know a lot, while others only want to know a little. Tell your parents how much you want to know.
- Expect your parents to feel some stress, just as you do. Your parent may not always do or say the right thing. Show your sick parent or sibling that you care. Maybe he or she is sick or very tired. Or maybe he or she feels okay and wants your company.
- Help your siblings. If you are the oldest child, your younger siblings may look to you for support. It's okay to let them know that you are having a tough time too. If you are looking to your older sibling for help, tell them how you feel. They can help, but may not have all the answers.
- You can get more ideas about “Touching base when things are changing” on page 25 of When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens and on page 43 of When Your Brother or Sister Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens.
Helping Your Parent or Sibling Who Has Cancer
Just like everyone else, the person in your family who has cancer may be worried, scared, or confused. They may also feel tired and sick because of the treatment. You may both have many of the same feelings. Knowing how another person is feeling can help you figure out how to help them, or at least understand where they are coming from.
People with cancer may feel afraid. Depending on how your sibling or parent reacts to tough situations they may be more or less afraid. Others may feel sad. People with cancer sometimes cannot do things they used to do. They may miss certain activities and friends. Cancer and treatment side effects can sometimes cause a person to be mad or grumpy. Chances are your family member is angry at the disease, not at you. Many people with cancer are hopeful. You can learn more about what your sibling may be feeling in chapter 5 of When Your Brother or Sister Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens and in chapter 4 of When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens. Ways to help a family member who has cancer include:
- Hang out together. Watch a movie, television show, or read together. Decorate their bedroom. Say, "I love you." Just be with them.
- Help your brother or sister stay in touch with friends. Encourage your sibling's friends to text notes or send pictures. Help your sibling to stay connected with their friends.
- Keep your parent in the loop. Tell your parent about your day. Ask your parent how his or her day was.
- Share a laugh. You have probably heard that laughter is good medicine. Watch a comedy or tell jokes together.
- Talk about your family. Look through pictures. Talk about what you’re both most proud of, your best memories, and how you both have met challenges.
- Try to be upbeat, but be "real," too. Being positive can be good for you and your whole family. But don't feel like you have to act cheerful all the time if that's not how you really feel.
- Keep a journal together. Take turns writing in a journal with people in your family. This can help you share your thoughts when it might be hard to talk about them.
Last week I decided to do something drastic to show my sister how much I love her. I shaved my head! I am not saying that’s the right thing for all sisters to do--but it felt like the right thing for us.
You and Your Friends
Your friends are important to you, and you are important to them. In the past, you could tell them everything. Now, it may seem like a lot of things are changing—even your friendships. It may be hard to talk with your friends. But when someone in your family is sick, you really need friends you can talk with. Here are some things to think about:
- Friends may not know what to say. It's hard for some friends—even those who care—to know what to say. They may be afraid of upsetting you. You may need to take the first step.
- Friends may not understand. It may feel like your friends don't care anymore. It might seem as though their lives are moving on and yours is not. It can be hard to watch them. Since they aren't facing the situation you are right now, it may be hard for them to relate.
- Friends—old and new. You may not have as much in common with some friends as you used to. However you may also make new friends through this experience. Kids who used to just pass you in the halls may now ask how you’re doing. Be open to new friendships, perhaps through a support group. Support groups can help connect you with other teens who are going through some of the same things that you are.
- You can get more ideas about what to say to your friends in chapter 8 of When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens or in chapter 9 of When Your Brother or Sister Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens.
Don’t be shy about asking for help. When faced with tough situations, we all need support from others. It may not be easy to reach out to others, but if you do you will find that there are people who can help. You may want to start with your parent, or a trusted adult such as a teacher or coach.
It helped to talk with others who are going through the same things. I would tell other kids to find a support group for sure.
Tips for Talking with Your Parents
You may or may not have a great relationship with your parents. It may or may not be easy to talk with them. But, you and your parents really can help each other. These steps can help:
- Prepare before you talk. Think about what you want to say and about some solutions to the problem. Think about how your parents might react. How will you respond to them?
- Suggest a place. Whether it's in your room, on the front steps, or while taking a walk, find a place that feels comfortable.
- Take things slowly. Don't expect to solve everything right away. Difficult problems often don't have quick and easy solutions. Some conversations will go better than others.
- Keep it up. Don't think you have to have just one big conversation. Have many small ones. Make time to talk a little each day if you can, even if it's just for a few minutes.
Tips for Asking Others for Help
You and your family need support from others. It can be hard to ask. Yet most of the time people really want to help, so don't hesitate to ask. Help your family to make a plan that considers:
- People who may be able to help: Grandparents, aunts, uncles, family friends, neighbors, teachers, coaches, people in your religious community, school nurses, and guidance counselors are all people you can ask for help.
- Ways people can help: People can help by giving rides to school or sports events, helping with homework, or giving your family practical help such as grocery shopping, making meals, or mowing the lawn.
Make a list with your parents of what needs to get done. Talk about people who might be able to help. Keep the list by the phone. When people ask what they can do, pull out the list. Ask about websites you can use to get practical support from people who care and can help.
Tips for Joining a Support Group
A good way to connect with others who are going through similar things is a support group. Some groups meet in person. Others meet online. At first, this may not sound like something you want to do. Other teens have thought the same thing, until they went to a support group meeting. They were often surprised that so many others felt the same way they did and had helpful advice. Many support groups meet online these days.
Tips for Meeting with a Counselor
Sometimes talking to friends and your parents may not be enough. When you are having a hard time, it may help to talk with a counselor. Going to a counselor means you have the courage to recognize that you are going through a tough time and need some help. Teens who have talked with a counselor say it helped to talk with someone outside their circle of friends and family who didn't take sides, who they could trust.
The Road Ahead
It can be hard to stay calm when you aren't sure what the future holds. You may be thinking, will my sibling or parent live? Will the cancer come back? Will life ever be the same?
While no one can know the future, there are things you can do to make your life a little easier:
- Keep talking and pulling together as a family. You may find that cancer has drawn you closer together and made you appreciate each other more.
- Discover your own needs. Don't let others tell you how you should feel. Allow yourself to cope at your own pace and in your own way.
- You are growing as a person. Many teens say that having a family member with cancer has made them more sympathetic, more responsible, and stronger.
- Accept people’s help. Right now you may feel lonelier than you ever have in your life. But you are not alone. Many people are there to lend a helping hand. Accept their help.
- Appreciate each day. Many teens who have a family member with cancer say that they learned to see the world more clearly. In time you may come to appreciate things you once took for granted. Take some time to write your thoughts down, even if they seem small.
After treatment, you and your family may feel a whole range of emotions. Part of you is glad it is over. Another part of you may miss the freedom or new responsibilities you had. You may be afraid the cancer will come back. You may look to find more meaning in your life now. All these feelings are normal.
Getting back to a more carefree life may take a long time, or it may not happen as you expect. Here are some things that others have to say about life after cancer treatment.
- Neil talks about the "new normal": I watched my two younger brothers a lot when my older brother Alex was away getting treatment. They used to come to me a lot for support. But now that Alex is home, I'm back to being just one of the little kids again. Right now things just feel different.
- Sarah appreciates life more. Before my mom got sick we fought a lot—over what I was wearing, who I hung out with, or why I wasn't nicer to my little sister. After my mother got cancer, we pulled together more. My sister and I got tight. I even help run a support group for kids at my school who have a sick parent.
- Emily isn’t afraid to love. It was very hard to hear that my mom's treatment wasn't working anymore. She and I decided to make the most of each day. Some days we talk nonstop. Other times we just sit together and hold hands. Every day, I tell my mom how much I love her. You can't be afraid to love. Not ever. I learned that.
If Treatment Doesn’t Help
If treatment does not help your sibling or parent, you and your family will face even more challenges. You may feel many of the same emotions you felt when you first learned that your family member had cancer.
When the future is uncertain, teens say that it helps to:
- Make the most of the time you have. Do special things as a family. Call and visit as much as you can if they are in the hospital. Write notes and draw pictures. If possible, have some special times together. Let your family member know how much you love them.
- Stay on track. When people get bad news, they often feel like they are living outside of themselves—that life is moving along without them. Keep a schedule and stay involved in things that matter to you.
- Have hope. Never stop believing in tomorrow. Don't be too hard on yourself. There is more good than bad in this world, even though you might not feel that way right now.
- Get help when you feel alone. Make sure you find people who can help you. In addition to your family, it may help to talk to a social worker, counselor, or people in a support group. It's important to get your feelings out.
If Your Loved One Passes Away
- You will always have memories. Your sibling or parent will always be part of your life. Hold on to your memories. It's okay to think about something funny that he or she did or said. By smiling you are bringing back just a little of what was so special about them.
- The pain will lessen with time. At first, the pain may be so strong that you might wonder whether you will ever feel happy again. Time has a way of healing. And when you find yourself not being sad every day, it doesn’t mean that you have forgotten. It just means you are starting to heal.
- Everyone grieves in his or her own way. Some teens grieve by crying. Others get quiet and spend time by themselves. Some find that they need to be around friends and talk. Others get angry. Most people find it helps to keep a regular routine. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. It’s okay to deal with loss at your own pace.
- Life will change. Stay open to new experiences. Make small changes that give your life new meaning. Write down what you are feeling. It won't be the same, but it can be rich and full again. Keep believing this.
Facing cancer in your family is probably the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do. It will change your life. But you will get through it. Why? Because you are strong, and you are capable—even if you don't always feel that way.
It is great that you want to learn more. Make sure that what you read is accurate. You can get information from your school, the public library, or the patient education office at the hospital. Keep in mind that you may also find a lot of cancer-related information online. Some of what you find might not be accurate. Check with your parent or another trusted adult to learn if what you found applies to your family member.
Related resources that both teens and adults may find helpful:
- Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation: Supporting Siblings
- American Cancer Society: Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer
- American Society of Clinical Oncology: How to Help Healthy Children Cope When a Sibling Has Cancer
- Cancer Support Community
- CancerCare: Free Support for Parents and Children Affected by Cancer in the Family
We would like to thank the many teens, scientists, and health professionals who helped to develop and review of this information.