If you are a teen with cancer, you probably have lots of questions. Here are some answers. If the information you want isn’t here, ask your doctor, your nurse, or a Child Life specialist. Don’t be shy about asking—they’ve heard it all before, and they want to help.
Q. Why me?
A. You may be secretly wondering what you did to cause this. The simple answer is that you didn’t do anything: Most cancers in teens have no known cause.
What is cancer? Cancer is not just one disease. Rather, it is a group of diseases that act similarly. In all types of cancer, abnormal cells begin to grow out of control. These cells can destroy normal cells and interfere with normal body functions. That is why they are harmful.
Q. Who gets cancer, anyway?
A. Very few teenagers or children get cancer, which is not very comforting when you have cancer. Most cancers in teenagers have no known cause, and they are not contagious. You cannot give cancer to your friends or family.
Q. Is this my fault?
A. No. It is not your fault.
Q. Am I going to die?
A. Probably not. Most cancers can be treated, and most teenagers with cancer will get better. (The overall survival rate for childhood cancers is 80 to 85 percent.) Don’t believe it? Read Danel’s story.
Q. How am I supposed to cope with being bald? Zits were bad enough.
A. Your appearance is really important when you are a teenager. There’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s nothing wrong with not wanting your friends and classmates to think you look weird.
At first, the thought of going around with no hair might be pretty upsetting. You may want to get a wig or wear hats or head wraps, but after awhile most teens who have lost their hair stop worrying about being bald. “It’s only hair,” they say, especially once they realize that their friends can deal with it and will still treat them the same.
Here are some suggestions:
- Talk to your friends about being bald. They may not want to bring it up first. Bad jokes are good here. Do you look like your grandfather?
- See if your friends and family want to shave their heads with you—it’s a way they can show their support.
- Play with your new look. The 2bMe website has an interactive style finder that will help you choose the right hat, scarf or other head wear.
- Remember, it’s only temporary. Your hair will grow back.
Q. What am I doing here in a children’s hospital with all the little kids?
A. Research has shown that the right cancer treatment for teenagers is more like treatment for younger kids than like treatment that adults would receive. Plus, teens get different kinds of cancer than adults. So, even though you may be as tall as an adult, and you probably don’t think of yourself as a child anymore, the right place for you is in a cancer center that specializes in taking care of children.
Q. Who are all these people—doctors, nurses, nutritionists, art therapists? And why do I need a social worker? Or any of them?
A. It’s tough to be a teenager and to deal with a serious illness at the same time. Just when you were becoming more independent, learning to drive, maybe working part time, and needing more space from your family, you got cancer. These folks are here to help—maybe just as someone else to talk to and hang out with, or maybe as an expert to answer your questions, make sure you are eating right, and offer distractions.
Q. My family is freaking out—what am I supposed to do?
A. Of course your parents and other family members are going to be upset when they find out you have cancer. They are worried about you. Often teens with cancer try to protect their parents. They don’t want to upset them, so they won’t tell them how they really feel. One of our nurses points out that it’s your parents’ job to be upset, and you can’t expect them not to worry about you.
As things go along and you and your parents get used to your treatment routine and to being in the hospital (if you are hospitalized for treatment), things should get better. Talk to your nurse or Child Life specialist if you need some help dealing with your parents. They are here to help.
What about your friends? When you have cancer, you need your friends more than ever. After all, they’re the people who really understand you. Talk to your nurse about having your friends visit when you are in the hospital. Usually friends can visit as long as they don’t have colds or other germs they could pass on to you. If you don’t live in the Seattle area, you can stay in touch with friends by e-mail. The Teen Center has computers you can use. And you will probably make some new friends—other kids who are going through cancer treatment, too.
You, and your friends, may need some help getting over the awkward feelings you will likely experience. Both the Teens Living With Cancer website and the 2bMe website have some ideas for dealing with this.
Q. Can I go to my prom?
A. The answer is probably yes. If the prom is important to you, your doctors and nurses will do everything they can to make it possible for you to go. Your team can delay your chemo or surgery so that you can attend the prom, and you might even be chosen as prom king or queen!
Q. Can I have sex?
A. Yes, you can have sex. The only times you should abstain are when your blood counts are low because that increases your risk for infections. Otherwise, remember to practice safe sex—chemotherapy (or other cancer treatment) is not birth control. Read about sexuality and cancer treatment and pregnancy and cancer treatment.
Q. Will I ever get my normal life back?
A. Yes, and no. We talk to teens with cancer about getting used the “new normal.” When you are first diagnosed, this means getting used to your treatment, including your chemotherapy schedule, lab schedule, other tests, getting shots at home, and being in and out of the hospital. In the beginning, everything is new and an adjustment. But after doing it for a while, you will get into a routine, and that routine will become your new normal. Once treatment is over, your life will likely still include follow-up care: regular doctor’s appointments and tests, and possibly some medications as well.