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Talking About Breast Cancer Diagnosis with Teens

Jul 11, 2013 | Posted by BCS

Communicating a breast cancer diagnosis with teens is much different than sharing a diagnosis with young children.

“Teens know more about cancer. And while young children’s lives revolve around home, a teenager’s primary life task is to separate from the nuclear family and to develop his or her identity,” explains author and cancer survivor Wendy Harpham, M.D. 

The stress of this difficult separation can be exacerbated when a family member is ill. “Teens feel the strain of conflicting desires: wanting to break away while family illness pulls them back home.” What’s more, teens often feel a disparity between their own concerns and responsibilities compared to the concerns and freedoms of their friends who are not dealing with family illness. 

“You’ll want to assure your teens that it’s normal and healthy to still be concerned about things like prom while you are going through treatment,” says Harpham. “Make clear that their primary job is the same as if you didn’t have cancer: namely, to continue to grow and learn and mature.” No matter what is happening to you, encourage their school and after-school activities, as well as their friendships and interests.

It’s not easy, Harpham says, when you’re fighting for your life, but maintaining some normalcy is paramount – especially when teens may be tempted to turn to alcohol, drugs and promiscuous relationships as a means to deal with their stress.

What else can you do to support your teen during this difficult time? Harpham recommends these tips, found in her book, When a Parent Has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for Your Children:

  • Establish and maintain open communication, and always tell the truth. Your teens have a right to know what’s happening. Open, honest communication enables you to guide your teens to healthy ways of coping.
    • Don’t worry about trying to say and do all the “right” things.
    • Give your teen the space to react honestly, whatever that reaction might be.
    • Stop and really listen. Consider your teen’s views and negotiate when reasonable.
    • Share specifics about your condition that your teen needs to know to deal with his/her world.
    • Prepare your teen for upcoming changes whenever possible, e.g., medical schedules, expected symptoms, changes in family routine.
    • Reassure your teen you can deal with whatever happens, and you will help him or her to deal with the changes in his or her life.
    • Find a trusted adult who can serve as your teen’s confidant for those times your teen doesn’t want to burden you.
    • Clarify how your teen can help through the tough times, such as assisting with the dishes, sharing happy stories from school, and being patient if you forget to do something you were supposed to do.
    • Find a balance between maintaining rules and routines and making healthy exceptions.
    • Provide your teens with periodic respite from your illness and from their added responsibilities, e.g. Plan excursions together when you’re physically able: picnics, movies, or other activities.

“As you would with a younger child,” says Harpham, “reassure your teen that nothing he or she said, did, thought or felt could possibly have caused the cancer or can affect how the cancer treatment is working.”

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