Written by Maya Silver
I was 15 when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. What did I know about cancer then?
I knew that cancer sucked and I knew that it was serious. I knew it meant bald heads, bad times and big needles full of chemicals that would be injected into my mom and make her sick.
What do I know now?
A lot more. I learned a great deal from living through the experience and even more from talking to other teens and experts for My Parent Has Cancer And It Really Sucks, a guide my dad and I wrote to help teens whose parents have cancer too.
Looking back at the experience today (10 years later), here’s what I wish my 15-year-old self had known about cancer:
- That there are an estimated one million American teens who have a parent with cancer. It’s easy to feel like you’re in a silo, especially when you’re a self-conscious teen and your world experience amounts to high school and family vacations. Knowing that there’s a whole community of other teens like you in the same situation is reassuring. It means you’re not alone. Even if you don’t personally know any of those million or so teens personally, it feels good to know they’re out there. And if you want to, seek them out. Look for support groups in your area. Find online forums. Reach out!
- That when it comes to coping, it’s your way or the highway. No one can tell you what the best way is to cope with a disease like cancer. There are many coping mechanisms out there and you have to do what’s right for you. For some teens, that means getting active through team sports, hitting the gym or exploring nature. Others find solace in creative expression. Some crave the company of family and friends. Others need alone time. Do what’s right for you. There’s only one exception to this rule – if your way of coping puts you or others at risk. If you’re turning to risky behavior to feel better, seek help.
- That, for the most part, it’s all normal. We talked to a lot of teens that had thoughts or behaviors that they felt were weird or atypical. It’s important to recognize that dealing with a disease like cancer can evoke a wide range of emotions. For example, some teens admitted that they wished it were the other parent who had cancer. This doesn’t make those teens bad. It just means that perhaps they’re closer to the other parent.
- That laughter or fun during cancer doesn’t deserve guilt. I experienced a lot of guilty feelings during the cancer years. I felt a constant pull to be at home and spend time with my mom when I really wanted to escape and forget about things with friends. It’s okay to seek out joy during cancer – in fact it’s critical. It will help you cope and engage with your family with fresh, renewed vigor.
- That just because your parent has cancer, it doesn’t mean you are bound to have cancer, too. Only 5-10% of cancer cases are genetic. All other cases are attributed to environmental causes (e.g. smoking) or pure chance. As I watched my mom battle cancer, I more or less assumed that my sister and I would eventually be in her shoes. I felt this way for a very long time and that fear still has a small voice in my head. This fear is probably one of the major motivators for living a healthy, active lifestyle, but I have accepted that cancer is not necessarily my fate.
It’s all 20/20 in hindsight but the mistakes I made and the lessons I learned the hard way have made me into the person I am today. I know now that it’s better to be open about your feelings (rather than internalize them) and I understand the importance of having an arsenal of coping mechanisms to get you through hard times – large or small.
* In case you’re wondering, Maya’s mother has completed cancer treatment and is doing better.