Reality Bites: Young Adults & the Reality of Mortality

Our last blog post, Teen a Rock & a Hard Place, spoke about the impact of a parent’s cancer diagnosis on their teenage children. However, another group of ‘children’ who are often overlooked when it comes to dealing with a cancer diagnosis in the family, are those in their late teens and early twenties. Why? Because they’re considered to already be fully fledged, emotionally capable, independent ‘adults’.

There is a fundamental conflict between the world view of young adults versus the illness and treatment their parent is experiencing. Young adults are naturally forward-looking and future-affirming – and almost oblivious to the inevitability of life ending. Thus, their being able to process and cope with a potentially life-limiting illness barges into their lives like an invasive, incomprehensible intruder, literally turning their entire world upside down and inside out. An added tension is that as a not-yet-adult, they are expected to function faultlessly (physically, role-wise, emotionally) in an adult world.

Escaping into Excess: Young Adults and Cancer

What about their generation’s craving demand for ‘instant solutions’ and ‘immediate gratification‘? Cancer treatment is certainly not an ‘easy way out’, and is unable to meet either of these demands – with even adults finding this ‘no quick-fix’ treatment a scary and frustrating challenge.

And then there’s Dr Google with his pro’s and cons. The access to prolific amounts of information online for this tech-savvy generation poses both a threat and an empowering source of solace and support. And whilst knowledge is indeed power, the risk of a young adult encountering misinformation means they will incorrectly fill in the medical and emotional blanks the parents should fill in themselves in the telling of their cancer story.

Domestic Duties: The additional family responsibilities and household tasks that these young adults have to take over during their parent’s cancer treatment often leads to resentment and anger – and its destructive spin-off: guilt (which benefits no-one in the cancer journey.)  These are all incredibly complex and tough emotions for young people to process and express in ways that are healthy and beneficial for both themselves – and their parent and family unit.

What about the ‘otherness‘ and sense of unasked-for displacement of being a young adult whose parent has cancer? It can be difficult to find peer support or even ‘approval‘ for this fearfully tabooed illness. The young adult may feel their parent is ‘not cool’ – and may even be an embarrassment.  When the pressure is on to fit in with the crowd, cancer smacks labels on these young people as being different or special – which is certainly not the attention they need.

The Escape into Excess: Finally, there is a noted tendency for youngsters under stress to find escape and solace in ‘excess’: binge drinking, experimenting with drugs, fast or aggressive driving, and reckless sexual encounters. This escapism into excess is a subconsious reaction to the threat of mortality — and an attempt to prove they are, in fact, invincibly immortal and that life lasts forever.

We know we have raised more questions than answers in this post, but our hopes are that these questions will ignite this crucial conversation and direct psycho-social support providers to escalate their availability for these young people.

What has your experience been? Are you a parent of a young adult? Are you yourself a young adult whose parent is undergoing cancer treatment? Did any of our points resonate with you? We’d love to hear your comments. Let’s continue this conversation on our Facebook page. We also welcome you with all our heart to inbox us there if you need support as a young adult, or would like to help a young adult in this situation. We can connect you with just the right people and support you deserve.

TAKEAWAY: Sarah Fraser video journal on what she’s learnt from her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis.


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