Dramatic, moody, self-absorbed, rebellious. These are all words I’ve used to describe my teenager. I have to admit that the teenage years have been a roller coaster. My cute little snuggle bunny who used to put his head on my shoulder while I read him a bedtime story, now communicates with grunts and eye rolls. I tell myself it’s all part of growing up.
Then the bomb is dropped - a parent diagnosed with metastatic cancer.
To be honest, it was one of the hardest conversations I have ever had with my son. I lost several nights sleep wondering how to give such devastating news to this man-child who already seemed to live on the emotional edge. What follows here is MY experience and what I learned. It’s one experience and certainly not the only one.
First, above all, BE HONEST. Few things will let down a teenager like not being able to trust an adult. Say the hard things. It is normal for us to want to protect our children from bad things in the world, but a teenager is on the verge of being an adult and will likely surprise you with what they can handle. Yes, tears will likely be shed. That’s normal. I cried when we got my husband’s diagnosis and I would have found it kind of strange if my son didn’t.
We started off with the “we need to talk” approach. He knew we had been back and forth to the doctor after an emergency room visit that resulted in an admission to the hospital. He knew his dad had not been feeling well. Even though it may seem like your teenager is ignoring you, they have a pretty good sense of what is going on. Therefore the reason for the talk was no surprise. He asked, “Is it serious?” The only answer is “Yes.” He asked, “Are you going to die?” The only answer is “We don’t know.”
Next, give them reassurances where they can be given. His dad assured him that he would be fighting with everything he had to stay alive. We also told him that we would do everything we could to minimize disruptions to our routines. That being said, between the disease itself and the side effects of treatment, disruptions would occur. When they did occur, we would need him to step up. That turned out to be a very important conversation. It wasn’t very long before treatment side effects landed my husband back in the hospital. My son was a trooper, taking care of his school work, preparing meals for himself, washing his clothes, etc.
Finally, let them know it’s ok to talk about it. Not just with you, but with friends, teachers, anyone who is helpful for them. Cancer shouldn’t be a secret and no one should feel isolated with a diagnosis of cancer. He did talk with friends and some of them told their parents. Some of those parents, in turn, offered my son rides to and from events, which took a load off of us. A few of the parents contacted me to offer support.
Mature, compassionate, and resilient. These are the new words I use to describe my teenager. My son has been pushed into dealing with adult situations much sooner than many teenagers. And I have to admit that the times when he has a little temper tantrum about some teenage melodrama make me smile. But I am so impressed with the young man my son has become, and grateful for the support we are able to have for each other as a family.
Louisiana Cancer Prevention & Control Programs Director, Caregiver, Mother of Teenager
Dr. Donna Williams, DrPH
Director, Louisiana Cancer Prevention and Control Programs