Posted on September 12, 2013, 4:00 AM
By Maya Silver
I remember the first day of 10th grade: intimidating new teachers, difficult new subjects, lots of stress. That afternoon, my parents came to pick my sister and me up. As we sat in the car, they told us some shocking news: My mom had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. With my high school building fading behind us as we drove away, I couldn’t help but freak out about how everything would change.
Should I tell my friends? Did I want my teachers to know? Would my mom’s cancer mean that I wouldn’t have time to handle homework and hang out with friends?
Now I had a whole new list of things to stress out about. I had a million questions. And I didn’t have any answers.
This year, my dad and I published a book for teens dealing with a parent’s cancer: My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks. (Believe me, it does.) We interviewed over 100 teens who’ve faced this situation and many experts as well. Here’s what they told us – and what I wish my parents and I had known on that scary day in September.
Tell your school friends what you want from them. “I know how you feel.” If your friends haven’t experienced having a parent diagnosed, how could they possibly know how you feel? And then there are the kids who try to empathize by saying, “My cat had cancer.” That’s really not the same!
You may need to give your friends a little guidance—maybe in person, or via e-mail, or text. One girl said all she wanted friends to say was, “Do you feel like talking about it?”. If you tell your friends what you want to hear, chances are they’ll say the right thing.
Tell the school, too. You might not want teachers and administrators to know what’s going on at home. But consider a few reasons why it can be a good idea to bring the school into the loop. If you need to talk to someone besides your parents, a trusted teacher or counselor or coach can become your go-to person during the school day.
And if, like 16-year-old Reilly, you find your grades are “going into the toilet” after your parent’s diagnosis, you and your parents might want to meet with a counselor to discuss strategies. Postponing deadlines sounds great in theory, but then you might always be behind. Another option: Request shorter homework assignments/research papers during your parent’s treatment.
Ask for a pass. Some schools will provide a “get out of class” pass to kids coping with a parent’s illness. “I tried to get my mom’s cancer to the back of my head but sometimes it distracted me,” says Paul, whose mom was diagnosed when he was 13. “I’d just use the pass and go to guidance counselor.” Just don’t abuse the pass or it will be taken away!
Don’t give up extracurriculars. School activities in the arts, sports, or volunteering might provide relief for cancer-related stress. If you feel stretched too thin, consider dropping an activity or two, but definitely keep the ones that make you happy.
It’s still okay to have fun. One teen decided to skip a party because dad had cancer. His parents ordered him to go—and he’s glad he did. Hanging out with friends and having a good time can help you cope.
You might feel like you need to check out of fun or be super serious during your parent’s cancer. But it’s important to have fun and even use humor to cope sometimes.
You might actually look forward to going to school. School can be a place to get away from cancer and the stress it causes. “Going to school every day normalized my life,” says Samantha, who was 17 when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. “I could put cancer to the back of my mind for a little while.”
But sometimes you just need a day off. Don’t make a habit of using your parent’s cancer as an excuse to stay home, but every now and then you might need a break—maybe just to take a mental health day to deal with your emotions, or maybe to go with your parent to a chemo session. As Sandi Ring, of the group Supersibs!, put it: “If you really want to be with your parents instead of at school, that might be the best thing for you. Your ability to focus in school is going to be impacted. And you’ll have some one-on-one time with Mom or Dad. Those stolen moments will really mean a lot.”
Maya and her dad Marc are the authors of “My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice from Real-Life Teens.” Maya was 15 when her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Today, her mother is in good health.
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