Being a teenager is hard enough, but add a diagnosis of cancer to the mix, and the challenges can be daunting. For teens, the psychological effects of a diagnosis can differ widely from the effects on young children, and teens need different forms of support. Anna, an 18 year old brain tumor survivor, explains, “There is so much pressure [in the teenage years] to conform and fit in, and for some of us cancer makes that almost impossible. We have such different experiences and have gone through things other teens can’t even imagine. Many times they become uncomfortable around us, not understanding our differences.” On top of that, Anna relates, “Uncertainty about the future is also an issue that all teenagers have to deal with. For cancer patients, it can be much more stressful to think about higher education or jobs, and how our experiences with cancer have altered our opportunities.”
Most teenagers desire independence and freedoms, yet a cancer diagnosis necessarily causes increased reliance on parents again. As teenagers want a voice in what happens with their care, conflicts may arise between teens and their parents. Effective treatment plans encourage straightforward communication and incorporate other means to help teens maintain a sense of control over their lives.
We asked teenage patients and survivors how friends, parents, siblings, teachers and others can help teens get through their treatment. “Knowing other teens that are going through similar trials helps a lot,” says Anna. “Through friendships such as those made at Camp Sunshine, we feel less isolated from the world and more like we are ‘normal.’”
Jenn, 16, found it difficult to catch up with her school work. She advises teens struggling with school to communicate with their teachers and “remember most teachers want to help.” Jenn reflects, “My teachers were very understanding and willing to work with me. Don’t be too proud to ask for help when you need it.”
Madison, 17, has additional advice. For teens battling cancer she says, “Do things you enjoy. For example, hospital arts and crafts might seem juvenile but things like that are great for giving your mind a break.” Friends should make special efforts, too, she says. “Treat us normal. Even if we’re too sick to go somewhere, just having an invitation makes us feel like we’re still part of the group.” Madison also says that texting and emails are great ways to stay connected with friends when going through treatment. She advises friends to visit often, whether at home or in the hospital and says, “You don’t have to come armed with gifts – a visit is enough.”