DD, Aged 17

    When people would talk they didn't know what to say which was understandable.  more...


    Mimi - 15 years old

    I lost myself doing stupid things, angry and sad and depressed at everything. I ended up failing my classes, not caring about school, and getting into fights.  more...


    Chelsea - 14 years old

    I stuck my head round the door in the room mum was in, and she looked really ill. I couldn't understand what was happening - one minute my mum was fine and the next she was ill.  more...


    Clair - aged 14

    Something I wish is I could just have one more day with my dad! - to tell him how much I love him and how sorry I am for all the bad things I have said and done to him!  more...


    Nicole - 17 years old

    This time the doctors are unable to operate. He has already had 6 sessions of chemo and is having another 6 sessions. I cannot help feeling I may lose him.  more...


    Rirrif - 15 years old

    I have been staying with my dad because my mom doesn't want me around when she is sick, which is all the time. My dad works at night so I spend a lot of time alone since I'm not with my mom. I'm afraid she is going to die and I'll blame myself for not being there more. more...


    HT - 13 years old

    She has been so strong about this and is keen to put it all behind her.  more...

Talking about cancer

Talking about cancer can be tough and particularly so when it concerns someone you love.

Talking to your parent

We often hear from teenagers that they don’t know what to say and how to talk to their parent about what’s happening. You may have questions and concerns you’d like to talk to your parent about, but like many others, perhaps you don’t know how to go about it. Perhaps you feel that your parent does not want to talk about it. Or, it may be that your parent wants to talk to you, but you don’t feel able to talk.

If you or your parent do not feel like talking, do not worry too much at first. It may be that the time is not right and you will talk another time. Sometimes we need to think things through before we can manage to talk about it. You may feel confused and not knowing what to ask or what to say. You may worry that talking to your parent will make them upset or you may worry that you will become upset in front of your parent and you don’t want them to see you upset. You probably feel that you don’t want them to worry about you at a time when they have their own worries… Also, we know that not all families are used to talking openly about their feelings and then it can be even more difficult when something serious is happening.

But we also know that difficult emotions can become even more difficult if we bottle them up inside us instead of talking about how we feel. If we bottle things up for long, it can feel quite overwhelming and often lead to a feeling of not being able to cope. It’s really important to vent our thoughts, worries and emotions as if we don’t share what we think and feel, it makes it very hard to support each other too. This is why we recommend that you should talk to your parents even if you feel it’s difficult. It can be surprising how much better we feel after talking about things that are on our mind, even if it doesn’t actually change what’s happening. Here on riprap we have put some information that may help you understand what’s happening in your family and hopefully it can also help you with talking to each other.

Remember that there is no right or wrong way to talk about this and the best thing is just to be honest and say what you’re thinking about or what’s worrying you. When talking about your parent's illness, here are some things you may want to think about beforehand:

  • Children and teenagers sometimes feel that their parents are hiding things from them and don’t tell them what’s going on. If you feel that your parent is reluctant to tell you about their illness or treatment, it may be because they don’t want to worry you. Every parent wants most of all to protect their children from difficult things in life and it is easy to think that it would be best not to tell you all the details. This can sometimes be right, but it can also work the other way round. Most children at any age will know that something is wrong and will worry more if they don’t know exactly what it is. They will often imagine things that can be far worse than the reality. If you feel that you’re not getting the information you want then you should let your parents know how you feel about it.
  • It may also be that your parent does not yet have all the information themselves. Some people feel more in control of their situation when they have all possible information and know what is going on at a detailed level. Other people however, don’t want to know all the details of their illness and treatment. They prefer just to have an overview and get the information they need bit by bit.
  • It may also be that things are unknown and there may not be an answer to all the questions you have right now. It can sometimes be difficult to talk about the situation if there is a big gap between what you want to know and talk about and what your parent wants. You need to figure out between you what’s best for you. Sometimes you may find it easier to talk to someone else in the family or maybe someone outside the family.
  • Think about how you normally talk to your parent about difficult things. You may feel that your parent should start the conversation, or maybe you would feel OK about doing this yourself. Go with whatever feels natural for you but remember that if you’re ‘good’ at keeping up a brave face then your parent may not understand that you want to talk about it…
  • Most importantly, remember, there is no right or wrong way to talk about cancer and how you feel.

Here are some more general tips when talking to your parent about the illness and how it may affect you-

  • Try and think about what you want to ask, and what you want to say before you talk.
  • You may both feel a bit awkward and it is ok if you are both silent for a while.
  • Try to just be honest and do not worry about whether you are saying the ‘right’ things because that doesn’t exist.
  • Do not worry if you or your parent get upset. Cancer is a difficult subject to talk about. There is nothing wrong with being upset and it will not be an added burden on your parent if they see you crying or being upset in any way. In a situation like this, your parent will worry about you anyway and being upset is a natural reaction that can sometimes help opening up the conversation so feelings can be vented and talked about.
  • If you or your parent does get upset, you should do whatever feels right for you. Sometimes it feels good to have a hug, maybe a good cry together and keep talking. Other times you may want to have a break and continue talking later.
  • Try and talk in a place and at a time where you both feel comfortable and will not be interrupted and neither of you have to rush off somewhere.
  • If you do not understand something that your parent says – perhaps a medical word you haven’t heard before – ask what it means.
  • If you really feel like you cannot talk to your parent, but want them to know how you feel, you could write them a note, a letter or do a drawing.

Here are some specific questions that you may find helpful when talking to your parent. Remember that we are all different and we don't always want to know the same things. It may be that you or your parent do not need the answers to many questions that we list here. Or you may have other questions. Usually, we know that people don't want to know the all answers to all possible questions at the same time so try to think about what you need to know right now.

Examples of issues to talk about:

  • What type of cancer is it?
  • Where in the body is the cancer?
  • How is it being treated?
  • How will your parent be affected by the treatment?
  • How long does the treatment last?
  • Where is the treatment given?
  • Can you visit if your parent is in the hospital?
  • How will the treatment affect your daily lives and routines?
  • Will anybody else have to look after you?
  • What can you do to help out?
  • What support will the family get?

Then over to you – what are your questions…?

Talking to your school

Often parents who have cancer let their children's school know about the situation. They may do this by talking to the headmaster or writing a letter. You may find that you do not want anyone to know about your parent having cancer. However, it is important that your school knows about the situation. This is so that they can be aware of what you’re going through and be supportive. Being supportive does not mean that they will interfere. You can tell them how much support and what kind of support you need. It is up to you and your parent how much you tell the school. However, it needs to be enough so that the school understands the effect that your parents illness and treatment is having on you and the family. This might include:

  • When your parent was diagnosed
  • The effects of treatment
  • How long the treatment will go on for
  • What extra chores you may have to do as a result of your parent's illness
  • Whether there will be anyone new looking after you if your parent has to go to hospital
  • Whether you need extra consideration around homework and exams

If you do not wish to talk to the headmaster about it, try talking to your year head, form tutor or favorite teacher. You may find it helpful to talk about any worries you have too, about how this situation may affect your homework, exams or important decisions at school. We know that many have problems concentrating at school because they’re thinking and worrying about their parent and what’s happening at home. Remember that your school is there to help. Your school may be able to help you with counselling sessions too if you feel that's something you need.

Talking to your friends

Teenagers often feel under pressure with issues around homework and wanting to fit in with friends etc. In spite of these pressures, we often think that being young is a time for being carefree and not having serious worries in life. That’s the way we want it to be and it is probably how most of your friends will be feeling. When your friends are worrying about homework, exams and friendships, you may have far more serious things to worry about.

Most likely, your friends will not understand what you are going through even if they try very hard. This may make you feel lonely as your carefree world has been taken away from you and your life is suddenly very different from your friends’. It is important that you keep up your friendships even though you may feel as if they don’t understand you and you have very different lives right now. Often, friends act differently towards you because they do not know much about cancer, and they do not know how to support you. Sometimes, friends can say hurtful things or leave you out of conversations and activities. Often they don’t say anything at all or just talk about normal things as if nothing has happened to you. This can be very hurtful but is usually because they are unsure about what to say and how to act. Even though you are the one needing support, it may be that you have to take the initiative and talk to them about your situation and how you want them to treat you. Most likely, you just want to be treated as normal, but you would also like them to understand if you are sometimes a bit absentminded and not quite focusing on whatever it is you are doing. Sometimes when we feel stressed, we can also become a bit impatient and snap at people even though we know it’s not their fault. It may be that your friends will ask you lots of questions and it can be a good idea to have some prepared answers in case some of the questions get difficult.

As well as you needing your friends, your friends may need you to show that you still need them, even if you seem a little different because you’ve got other things on your mind. Let your friends know that you still enjoy being with them and talking to them - just as you did before. And sometimes you may want to talk about your worries, sometimes you may just want a hug and other times you may just want to be with your friends as an escape from your worries at home and therefore, at times you may not want to talk about it at all. Remember that no-one is totally confident and other people will be feeling out of sorts too - they may also find things difficult to talk about.

If you find that it is too hard talking to your old friends, try also talking to new people. You may well find that there is someone else at your school who is going through, or has been through a similar experience. Often, people who have lost friends say that they made new and closer friends. Friends you had before may also become close to you again. If this is a hard time for you, remember that it won't last forever. And remember, you are NOT alone. There are other people in your situation who have a parent with cancer.

This site has a forum where young people can share experiences and it may be an idea to have a look at that and get in touch with others in a similar situation. They will more than anyone understand what it's like for you. Hopefully you will also find support in reading personal stories on this site and remember that you can also get in touch with us in the riprap team for support and advice whenever you feel like it.