Teen a Rock & a Hard Place

What do I say to my teenager?

For many people, the first question that they ask when they hear their breast cancer diagnosis is:

“What am I going to tell my children?”

Telling My Teenager About My Cancer - Advocates for Breast Cancer


Each of us may have a different answer to that question, depending on our own preparedness to talk about our illness. There is no set rule about what is right and wrong: each family’s journey will be different, and each family will find their own, unique way to adjust.

Here is some advice about talking to your children, of any age, but in this blog we want to touch on how to speak to your teenager about your illness.

The adolescent years are notoriously difficult when it comes to inter-generational conversations at the best of times. Adding cancer to the mix just complicates an already fraught situation. Sometimes parents reflexively pay attention to the needs of their younger children, but assume their older children understand the situation and will be able to cope. Result? Their ‘normal’ teenager needs are not heard, let alone their fears and feelings surrounding their parent’s cancer and how their lives will change.

According to oncology counsellor Shara Sosa, the very nature of adolescence fights against openness of any kind, nevermind the cancer in the family:

“With their kids locked behind a mask of teen indifference, parents are often intimidated and don’t know how to talk to them.”

Teenagers, very naturally as part of their maturing into adults, pull away from the insular unit of their family, forging their own identity. The news that a parent has cancer yanks the adolescent violently back into the fold – exactly where they don’t want to be. Other teenagers respond by defying their developmental stage, assuming responsibilities that normally fall to the parents. Out of sync with their peers, these kids sometimes talk about their ‘real age‘ and their ‘cancer age‘.


CancerCare has excellent, experienced advice for how to meet some of these child-parent challenges:

  1. Teenagers are unpredictable. Recognise and acknowledge that there are a variety of responses teenagers may have, and keep in mind that teenagers may be uncomfortable with some or all of their feelings and thoughts about your cancer.
  1. Teenagers want detailed information. This is especially true when it comes to information about diagnosis, treatment and prognosis. They may seek out further information on their own in addition to what you have provided.
  1. Teenagers need to know the truth and may feel particularly patronised or sensitive to information they feel is incomplete or inaccurate.
  1. Teenagers need privacy. They may or may not want to talk about the experience with their family. Reassure your teenagers that they can receive support from other sources, like an aunt, a friend’s parent, a teacher, clergy person or another member of the extended family – or even a professional cancer counsellor.
  1. Teenagers often write about and reflect upon their inner thoughts. Encourageyour teenagers to share these feelings and concerns. They can also channel this energy to athletics, music, journaling or other creative arts.
  1. Teenagers who want to contribute to caregiving should be allowed to participate in tasks that respect they are not adults, and yet no longer young children.
  1. Encourage teenagers who want to accompany their family member to treatment in order to see the facility and meet the treatment team. This can help them feel more in control about how your medical care is provided.
  1. Teenagers need consistency. Make an effort to ensure that they will still attend normal activities and social events.
  1. Teenagers struggle with the need for independence. A parent’s illness may make this more difficult. Encourage your teenager to spend time with friends in age–appropriate activities.


  1. Teenagers are often self-conscious. A teenager whose parent has cancer may feel even more different. To help your teenagers understand there are others going through a similar experience, you might suggest that they participate in a support group, peer-to-peer network or online chat room.





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