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Talking with Your Teenager about Cancer

Posted 11/12/2013

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  Caring for our kids, talking to our kids, worrying about our kids are often the most difficult parts of having breast cancer. When told of the diagnosis, most of us who are parents think first about our children. In that initial panic, the thoughts are likely "What will happen to them if I die?" or "How can I bear to leave them?". Fortunately, most women who receive the appropriate treatment do fine, so the questions become more about communicating with teens during treatment and trying to keep their lives close to normal. (Note: I fully recognize that parenting teens is challenging under the best of circumstances, and adding cancer to the mix surely does not make it easier.)

  Some years ago, I was part of a longitudinal study with a colleague in Psychiatry. We talked with children and families where the mom had breast cancer and found two things: children who were given honest, age-appropriate information and whose own routines stayed close to normal did fine. Obviously we were looking at families where the mom was doing well, not families facing advanced cancer. Those two caveats held up no matter how old the children and no matter what the specifics were of treatment and family routines.

  Talking with teens about cancer is often harder than talking with younger children. Adolescents are, by definition, self-involved and learning to move away from their dependence on their families. They are also sometimes surly and seemingly uninterested in talking much with their parents. I reassure women that, even if their adolescent children don't seem to even notice, they are concerned and caring a lot. The bullet points here would include keeping them informed (e.g. "I am having another chemo this afternoon, so Dad will be dealing with dinner tonight." Think news bulletins: short and to the point.), being honest, enlisting their help when appropriate ( a 15 year old can do her own laundry and maybe the family's, too), and not expecting too much.

  My friend Marc Silver wrote the excellent book Breast Cancer Husband some years ago and has a new book about adolescents in the family when a parent has cancer. This is a story from The Washington Post about his thoughts. I give you the start and a link:

Talk to the hand, Dad: Dealing with your teen when your spouse has cancer

My daughter Maya is in the family room watching TV. I’m heading out to buy ginger candies for my wife, Marsha, who’s upstairs in bed, feeling queasy after her latest round of chemotherapy.

“Going to get something for Mom; be right back,” I call to my 15-year-old.

.“How is she doing?” asks Maya.

In my head I think: “Why don’t you ask her yourself since she is just one flight of stairs away!” But I bite my tongue. I don’t want to add to the tension that cancer has already brought to our home.

Looking back, I realize that Maya wasn’t the only family member to avoid direct communication during the seemingly endless months of treatment for Marsha’s breast cancer. Consumed with all things cancer, my wife and I never asked her and her younger sister, Daniela, who was 13 at the time: “How are you guys doing?”


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