Supporting young people diagnosed with cancer
It’s normal for a young person who has just found out they have cancer to experience a rollercoaster of emotions: shock, anger, fear, sadness, guilt and numb are all common reactions. Your child is probably feeling some or all of these, and also thinking ‘Why me?’.
As they go through the cancer ‘journey’ and deal with treatment and changes they will experience other reactions and emotions. They might become:
- frustrated at the loss of their independence
- upset if they don’t get the support they want from their friends
- sad, self-conscious or shy because of treatment side-effects or changes to their appearance
- upset by disruption of school/study, work, sporting activities, holidays or plans with friends
- unwilling to talk about their cancer or seem like they’re not taking it seriously by joking around about it
How you can support them
Below are some suggestions for supporting young people diagnosed with cancer. You might also be interested in finding out more about the hospital-based Youth Cancer Services, which provide specialist, age-appropriate treatment and support for young cancer patients.
Open and honest communication with your child is key.
Young people want to know about their cancer and what’s going to happen to them, good or bad. Don’t withhold information – even if you think it’s better to protect them. In fact sharing information with them may be one of the best ways you can protect them, and maintain their trust in you. They generally find out, or need to know at some stage, and then may feel resentment or wonder what else you’re keeping from them.
Be ready to respond to the big questions like ‘Why me?’ and ‘Will I ever be normal again?’. Suggest people they can talk to or places they can explore these concerns with other young people who’ve been through this, like Canteen’s online community or peer support programs.
Most young people want information about their cancer and what’s likely to happen to them. It can be helpful to include them in discussions about treatment and other decisions, and allow them to talk privately with members of their treatment team. If your child is over 18 they will most likely be involved with every decision. For teenagers, make sure they know you are listening to and considering their thoughts and opinions – even though you may be the one to make the ‘legal’ medical decisions.
Direct them to reliable sources that are written for young people (such as other sections of this site, and our booklets).
Check their understanding. They might be carrying around guilt or fear based on mistaken beliefs about cancer. Assure them that nothing they did, said or thought caused their cancer.
Having cancer treatment will disrupt your child’s ‘normal’ activities and routines. After cancer your child will have to create a ‘new normal’ – but for now, focus on maintaining routines and relationships to give them some security.
Encourage your child to tell their friends and classmates or workmates about their diagnosis, and stay in touch with them. You can help arrange for friends to visit your child in hospital, or get one of their siblings or friends to help you organise a ‘welcome home’ party.
Help them to continue their usual life as much as is possible – to see friends, play sport and do after-school activities. And when things change, e.g. they can’t play sport for a while, suggest alternative interests or hobbies they can explore.
Help your child make a plan to keep up with their schoolwork or tertiary study so they can return after their treatment ends.
Create opportunities for them to ask questions or talk about their feelings and concerns.
If your child seems reluctant to talk to you about their thoughts or feelings, it’s probably because they don’t want to worry you. Just stay available. Try talking when you’re doing other things, like driving in the car or cleaning up the kitchen together rather than sitting down for a big heart-to-heart.
Suggest other people they can talk to: extended family members, friends, someone in their treatment team.
Many young people find it helpful to connect with other young people who have cancer (they can do this in our secure and moderated online community) or chat to a Canteen counsellor online or by phone.
Encourage your child to keep their body as healthy as possible – by eating well, getting plenty of sleep and regular exercise (as approved by the medical team), and avoiding illegal drugs and alcohol – to fight the cancer and ensure treatments are as effective as possible.
Help your child learn to relax and develop coping strategies to feel in control. Encourage them to express their thoughts and feelings by writing them down in a journal, through music or art, or by sharing them with other young people who understand what they are going through.
Suggest they check out the Canteen online community where they can read about other young people’s reactions, and perhaps write about their own feelings, or chat with a counsellor.
You can’t look after your child’s needs if you neglect your own. Take care of your body and mind too.
Your children learn how to cope with serious life events by watching your reactions and behaviours. If you seem to be coping and adapting, this may have a positive impact on them.
Build a support network around your family. You and your family need to be able to call on support from extended family, friends, your community and professionals. If you need advice about the support services that are available to families of young people with cancer call or email us (1800 TelWeb or firstname.lastname@example.org) or contact your nearest Youth Cancer Service.
It might include family members, friends, peer support groups, and adults they trust, like a teacher or neighbour.
Young people can find it difficult to tell their friends about their cancer or are disappointed when their friends don’t understand or don’t provide the support they need. In the ‘I have cancer’ section there is advice for young people about maintaining friendships and tips for talking to friends about cancer.