Coping with a Teenage Cancer Diagnosis

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Hearing that you have cancer is always upsetting, emotional, confusing and likely overwhelming.  But, when a teenager is diagnosed it is very scary for parents and for a teenager it can be news that is hard to grasp.  As a teenager you often feel invincible, like nothing truly bad can happen to you.  cancer is a sobering reality.  Depending on the specific diagnosis, a teenager will experience a lot of different things and treatment can involve a variety of things.

A teenager has probably known someone with cancer, perhaps an aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather or parent. But, when a teenager is diagnosed with cancer it becomes personal to them and affects them in a very different way.  The best thing for a teenager is to get as much information and be as involved in the process as possible.  After all, a teenager is no longer a small child and making decisions about their own health is important.  The decisions made now have consequences that will affect them later in their life and for this reason, it is important to allow them say in treatment decisions.  For example, some treatments may affect a person’s ability to have children later in life.  Speak with your doctor to see if this is a concern and, if it is, discuss what options there are to preserve fertility.

Teenagers need to understand that while some of the side effects may sound like they will feel like flu symptoms, cancer treatment can be incredibly harsh and they need to prepare for that reality. By sugarcoating it a teenager maybe unprepared for the reality of the harsh side effects of cancer treatment and it can lead to frustration and upset.  Treatment side effects that may be experienced include: nausea, vomiting, hair loss, weight loss, diarrhea, fatigue, pain, mouth sores and more.  These side effects are difficult for anyone and can impact a teenagers ability to go to school or compete in athletics.  A teenager will likely see changes in their body once treatment has begun and this can be confusing as well.  Teenagers need time to adjust to their new bodies and feel as comfortable in their own skin as possible.

A teen may feel uncomfortable going to school with no hair so a discussion about hats or wigs may need to be had to make a teenager more comfortable around their peers.    Encourage teenagers to discuss their diagnosis and treatment with their close friends so that they do not feel isolated or weird.  And, if they feel uncomfortable discussing it with their friends, encourage them to join a teenager cancer support group where they may feel more comfortable.  Simply talking about a diagnosis and treatment with peers going through similar situations can make day to day life much easier.  The changes teenagers experience and the symptoms of treatment can feel embarrassing.  High school is often hard enough for a perfectly healthy child so cancer can be a difficult obstacle in the high school setting.  A teenager needs to know that they are still themselves and be reassured that their range of feelings and emotions are ok.  If you are the parent, allow your child to feel a range of emotions and do not dismiss them away by saying “everything is going to be ok.”  Even if outlook is very good, allow a teenager to voice their concerns without dismissal so that they feel heard.  Additionally, ensure that there is still as much fun as possible in day to day life for a teen diagnosed with cancer.  Life cannot stop when cancer happens, especially if there are other siblings in the family.  Encourage your teenager with cancer to participate in fun activities with family or friends to help raise everyone’s spirits and remain positive.

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