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If You or Someone You Know Has Cancer

If you're like most teens, life can be pretty good. You're old enough to have earned your parents' trust and with it, some new freedom. Maybe you belong to a circle of close friends. You may feel so good that you actually feel invincible. But when you or someone you know is diagnosed with cancer, everything can change.

Suddenly, your familiar world can take on a sense of urgency. Instead of worrying about grades, you may worry about medical tests. Instead of rushing to a football game, you may find yourself hurrying to the hospital to visit a friend - or to your own doctor's appointment.

But as scary as the word cancer may sound, it is simply the name of an illness. Like many medical conditions, cancer can be treated. And although some teens with cancer don't recover, many not only survive, but return to their everyday lives. Read on to learn about how to cope if you or someone you know has cancer.

Learning About Cancer
You may be wondering what cancer is and how teens get it. If so, you're not alone because most people don't usually associate cancer with kids and teens. Cancer is actually the name given to many diseases in which cells (tiny units found in all living things) behave abnormally. In someone who has cancer, cells uncontrollably grow and divide and eventually form tumors, lumps that can destroy normal tissue. Cancer is a common disease, so it's likely that you know someone who has had it, such as an older relative or someone in a friend's family.

Many people find that learning more about cancer is important to their recovery. Suppose you were watching a play on stage and the actors were speaking a foreign language. Even though you might be able to figure out the plot by watching their movements, you would definitely miss a great deal of information. The same is true for cancer.

Whether it is you or a friend who has been diagnosed, it's good to learn as much as you can about cancer. If a friend has cancer, you can be a sounding board for his concerns. If you are the patient, you will be knowledgeable enough to ask relevant questions, give informed opinions, and take control of your medical options.

Cancer has its own language, and doctors can sometimes forget that you may not understand unfamiliar terms and phrases. If not, ask for explanations. Most doctors are happy to explain things in a way that makes sense to you. Or find someone such as a nurse who can help you understand.

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.

There are also Internet chat areas for people with cancer and their families and friends. They provide a convenient place to talk with people who have had similar experiences.

You can also ask your doctor to put you in touch with another teen who has cancer. You may find it helpful and comforting to share your experiences. And although no two patients have the exact same cancer experiences, it's good to know you're not alone.

How Can I Take Care of Myself 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. If you've been diagnosed with cancer, getting healthy is your first priority. Now it is more important than ever to pay attention to your diet and your sleep schedule.

If you're undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy as part of your treatment, you may need help with your diet because side effects 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.

Your doctor will 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.

How Can I Take Care of Myself Emotionally?
It is natural to feel many emotions when you learn you have cancer. Anger, fear, sadness, and anxiety are all common reactions to serious illness.

It's important to get help from trusted adults in sorting out your emotions. Some possibilities include social workers, clergy, close relatives, art or music therapists, and psychologists and psychiatrists.

Your doctor can help, too. Ask to meet another teen who has cancer. It can really help to exchange information and ideas and to 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 report 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 with your strong emotions and there are many places you can turn. Many hospitals conduct counseling groups for families and friends of people with cancer. Or you can identify 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.

Try to remember that the person with cancer is on an emotional roller coaster. Being in the hospital or having to stay home a lot to rest can be isolating and cause loneliness. 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 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 loved or knew before.

Reviewed by: Robin E. Miller, MD
Date reviewed: June 2002