How do you talk to teens about cancer? The teenage years are historically filled with emotional ups and downs, add to this the knowledge that a family member has cancer and things can become particularly difficult.
Millions are spent on cancer research every year and significant inroads in the early diagnosis and treatment of cancer are being made daily. Yet every day another cancer story emerges that saddens and humbles me in the face of its victims’ suffering and unequivocal courage.
This summer alone I have learnt of three women and their families affected by this disease. Like me, all are midlife mothers looking ahead to the next exciting chapter in their lives. It is not only the news of the cancer itself that is devastating, the probabilities make it an unfortunate reality after all, but also the battle that you know lies ahead and the fact there are no guarantees along the way.
Efforts at positivity are all well and good but I challenge any cancer sufferer to deny the harsh reality of what lies behind that happy mask they put on for their families and friends.
Personal fears and doubts aside, however, as a parent it is your children of course that sit foremost in your thoughts. The big C is the one we have all grown up to fear after all.
I remember so clearly the day I told my teens about my cancer. We had discussed my situation and treatment openly as a family prior to that, assured by the medical professionals that any abnormalities could be treated and no cancerous cells were present. In short it was nothing to worry about.
So when the bad news came it was unexpected, not just by us but by my gynaecologist too. He sent me packing on the 29th December, telling me to simply come back in six months for a check up, so when the call came on 2nd January from his secretary that he needed to see me there was absolutely nowhere to hide.
The enormity of the situation lay in what wasn't said and we all knew it could not be good news.
Thereon it was all about the “why”, the "how" and obviously the “what next?”
What can you possibly say? “It will be fine” just doesn’t wash in these circumstances, even if you yourself would like to believe that is the case. Teens are savvy, they have radar ears and of course google permanently attached to their fingertips.
So what is the best way to handle it? Well there is no guide book just, the advice of those to whom your care is entrusted who deal with this on a daily basis and your own personal understanding of your situation and your family dynamic.
Based on my own experience, not only as the recipient but also the bearer of bad news, my advice is this.
- Ignore the opinions of others. Everyone will be quick to suggest what you should do and say. Don't be pressured by others to talk to your teens until you are ready.
- Make sure the time is right, everyone is together and there are no external distractions.
- Be prepared and agree with your partner or spouse who is going to take the lead and what you are going to say. This is your story and needs to be communicated in the way you want.
- Facts are important. Don’t disguise the truth. If they know what is going on they are less likely to imagine the worst and will worry less.
- Keep it simple. There is a case of too much information. Tell them what they need to know. Too much is emotional overload.
- Encourage them to talk to you openly at any time and reassure them that they should not be afraid to ask you questions.
- Give them support. It’s their nightmare too. A network of friends and family they can call on if needed is invaluable as is the offer of professional counselling - an independent third party with no emotional ties can provide objective support.
- Stay strong. Tears and fears are inevitable but they need to know you will be fine with their love and support to cope with the road ahead.
- Change nothing, as well as love and support teenagers need the usual discipline and parameters in their lives.
- Remind them that life goes on. Of course there will be changes but it is ok for them to meet their friends, to go to a party, to laugh and have fun. They need to know that you are ok with that.
Editor’s note: if you are interested take a look at these sites filled with personal experiences, inspirational stories and practical advice about cancer - of course there are many but these are just some that have struck a chord with me: