Cancer | For Teens: Dealing With Cancer

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When the Person With Cancer Is You

Chances are you know someone who has had cancer, such as an older relative or someone in a friend's family. But sometimes cancer affects teens and when the person affected is you, the word cancer takes on a new meaning — one that can feel personal and frightening.

If you've been diagnosed with cancer, you should know that although it's unusual for people to have cancer during their teenage years, you're certainly not alone. The good news is that most teens who get cancer survive and return to their everyday lives.

Read on to learn about how to cope if you or someone you know has cancer.

Learning About Cancer

The word cancer actually refers to many diseases, not one. What these diseases have in common is that the body's cells (tiny units that make up all living things) behave abnormally. In someone who has cancer, cells grow and divide uncontrollably and eventually form tumors.

Many people with cancer (or who know people with cancer) find that learning more about it is a good way to understand and feel more in control of their situations. Knowing more about the disease also allows people to feel knowledgeable enough to ask relevant questions and take charge of their medical options.

Cancer has its own language, and doctors can sometimes forget that non-medical people may not understand its terms and phrases. If there's anything you don't understand, ask for explanations. Most doctors are happy to explain things in a way that makes sense to their patients. People with cancer usually have a specially trained medical team working with them to fight the disease. So if a doctor's not around, an oncology nurse can probably answer any questions.

Another way to make sense of cancer is to read. You can find tons of information and resources in public libraries, bookstores, and on the Internet. Remember, though, that you may come across information (especially on the Internet) that is incorrect or outdated. If you find information in your research that is different from what your doctor is telling you, be sure to ask your doctor about it.

People who are living with cancer and their families often find it helpful and comforting to share their experiences and learn what others have gone through. There are a variety of supportive environments where people can do this — everything from Internet chat areas on cancer sites to local support groups where people meet face to face. Ask your doctor to put you in touch with support resources for people who are dealing with cancer. Although no two patients have the exact same cancer experiences, it can sometimes feel good to know you're not alone.

Taking Care of Yourself Physically

Since you were a little kid, you've probably heard again and again that eating right and getting rest are two of the most important things you can do to stay healthy. For people who've been diagnosed with cancer, getting proper nutrition and plenty of sleep are good ways to stay as healthy as possible during treatment.

People who are having chemotherapy or radiation therapy may need help eating right because the side effects of these treatments can include loss of appetite and nausea. It may help to consult with a dietitian, a professional who can create a nutrition plan geared to your specific needs.

Exercise can also help a person stay healthy during recovery. If you're being treated for cancer, a doctor can let you know whether you should exercise, how much, and whether physical therapy might help. Once you are able to exercise, find out which types will help to increase your strength and stamina. Even gentle walking can go a long way to helping people with cancer feel better about themselves.

Taking Care of Yourself Emotionally

It's natural for people who have learned they have cancer to feel many emotions. Anger, fear, sadness, and anxiety are common reactions to having a serious illness.

Feelings and worries can seem overwhelming if they get bottled up inside. It's important to get help in sorting out your emotions. Some of the professionals you can talk to are social workers, clergy, and psychologists and psychiatrists. You can also share your feelings with trusted adults, such as relatives or members of a cancer support group.

It can really help to get to know other teens who have cancer. You can exchange information and ideas and learn how others your own age have managed to cope. There are also many medical organizations devoted to cancer support, and some have websites as well as toll-free telephone numbers to make it easy to contact them.

Above all, remember that although you may have cancer, you are a person first and a patient second. Cancer is not your identity; it is simply an illness you are trying to overcome.

How Can I Help Someone Who Has Cancer?

If a friend or relative has cancer, the most important thing you can do is to be yourself! Many people who have cancer say that the people they love suddenly treat them differently or stay away completely.

It's natural to feel frightened, anxious, or even angry when someone you know has cancer, but don't let that keep you from being there for your friend or loved one. You may need help dealing with your strong emotions, and there are many places you can turn: Many hospitals have counseling groups for families and friends of people with cancer. Or you can talk to an adult whom you trust for support and reassurance. You can also visit websites related to cancer.

Another way you might help a person with cancer is to consider volunteering at a hospital or clinic that treats people with cancer. Volunteering is an excellent way to show your support.

If a close friend or family member has cancer, he or she may be on an emotional roller coaster. Being in the hospital or having to stay home a lot to rest can be isolating and cause a person to feel lonely. Most people with cancer like having their friends and family around, even if the visits are short and there may not be much to say. If you're not sure whether to visit, ask.

Even if your schedule is very busy, you can keep in touch in other ways, like using social media, sending cards, talking on the phone, or using email. It will do a lot to lift the spirits of someone you know who is dealing with cancer.

Keep in mind that the person you care about is simply sick. Despite the cancer, he or she is still the same person you've always known and loved.

Reviewed by: Donna Patton, MD
Date reviewed: November 2010

© 1995-2012 The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth. All rights reserved.

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

Reviewed/Updated: 11/10
Created: 04/00

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