Talking to your Teenager about your Breast Cancer Diagnosis

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • I recently spoke with a newly diagnosed woman who was having trouble understanding her teenage girls’ reaction to the news that their mom has cancer. She reported that when she told the girls the date of her surgery, the older one received the news silently, while the younger responded, “Mom, that’s my first basketball game. Does that mean you won’t be there?!”

    I assured this woman that her girls sound very typical, based on the anecdotal evidence of my own experience, as well as listening to other women speak about their teenagers. These kids aren’t callous, despite appearances to the contrary. My son, 15 years old at the time, said, "So, are you going to die, or what?" And I said, "No, I'm going to have an operation..." blah blah, you know, the desperate words you say to your kids to make them believe everything is just fine. And I could see the information–the details of treatment, the doctor’s assurances that the odds were in my favor–was just going right in one ear and out the other. “OK, she’s not going to die, whatever.”
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    My theory is that most teenagers, especially in those young-to-middle teenage years, are SO egocentric (for good reason, because they're actually intensely growing their own personas) that they have very little energy for others, and what they have is totally directed towards their peer group. Mom and Dad are just there to provide rides, money, meals, and to help get them out of sticky situations when required.

    But inside–deep, DEEP inside–our children are worried about us. They need to bury that worry, because it's too much for them. So in it goes, buried deep, and they appear not to care. They're actually building a wall, to protect themselves from hurt, from stress. They're compartmentalizing very effectively, putting that piece of information–"Mom is sick, and she might die"–in a place far away from their minute-to-minute consciousness.

    Younger teenagers won’t even understand the seriousness of the operation; it's not like taking a wart off your foot, where you hop off the table and walk away good as new. After all, reasonably healthy kids have never been through anything serious. They rebound from the occasional cold or sore throat with remarkable rapidity, and the biggest medical calamity they’ve faced so far may have been a broken arm or a few stitches.

    Why would we expect them to understand what 8 or 9 hours on the operating table and the loss of a breast means to a grown woman? Neither will they understand the emotional pain you're going through. One, because they're young, and we can't expect them to act with the emotional "wisdom" of adults. And two, because they don't WANT to feel any of your pain. Who does? Also, in the case of girls, they may know enough to realize they’re now at greatly increased risk of cancer themselves; the latest studies show that boys are at greater risk, as well. Thinking of your own mortality, at age 16, is way too scary.

    So, when your kids seem oblivious to your pain, it’s probably a good thing. After all, you don’t really want them to lie in bed late and night and worry, thinking you’re going to leave them, do you? Still, you need support and sympathy from someone, preferably someone outside the medical community, someone close to you. That someone may be a spouse or significant other. But sometimes, as with your children, what you’re going through is just too painful for him or her to handle.

  • Instead, you may consider looking outside the family, to friends. Counter-intuitive though it may sound, your family may not be the best support system right now. They bury their hurt and worry; they “don’t want to go there.” As close as you are to your girlfriends, they’re NOT family, and the baggage that comes with blood ties is missing. When you’re feeling scared, sad, and need a hand to hold, you may find your friends–not your family–are just what the doctor ordered.
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Published On: March 27, 2007