Do I tell my teenager I could die?

Most people who are diagnosed with cancer worry about dying. When your teenager hears about your illness, he may also start worrying about your chances of dying. Should the two of you talk about it? While you make up your mind, think about these issues:

  • If your doctor is hopeful about your chances of getting better, you don’t need to tell your child that you could die.
  • With all of the research that’s being done, and the new treatments that are available, there’s a chance that your type of cancer may be cured one day.
  • If your chances of surviving cancer aren’t good, though, you’ll have to balance being honest with not wanting your teen to worry about your death before it’s necessary.

What to say

Teenagers will worry a little less if they’re able to learn some information about your disease and how the doctors will treat it. The following tips may help:

  • Let teenagers know that you’ll answer their questions at any time. Offer to find other people who could speak with them, too, like your doctor, a counselor, social worker, or a member of your religious community. A cancer support group for family members could also be helpful.
  • Tell teens what you expect from your treatment: Will it be a cure, will it put you in remission, or will it offer a little more time for all of you to be together before your death?
  • Help them understand that your cancer is not exactly the same as anyone else’s. For example, even though two women may both have breast cancer, they might have two different kinds of treatment; each of their doctors may be looking for different results, too.
  • Ask a close family friend or other trusted adult to join you and your teenager in a talk about death. It will help show your teen that your death is not a “secret” shared by just a few people. It will also give your child an extra person to speak with during the extra-tough times in your illness.
  • Be honest with your children so that they feel comfortable talking about their fears or worries.

Common reactions

Teenagers usually understand the natural cycles of life and death, and they think a lot about the future. Here are some typical teenage reactions to the idea of cancer and death:

  • Teens may not want to hear all of the important information about your illness at once.
  • They may start worrying about their own death, or the deaths of other people that they love.
  • They may start looking on the Internet for information about cancer. Teach them that not all health information that they read on the Internet, or hear from their friends, is correct. Ask your doctor for some websites that have good sources of information, and share those sites with your child.

 

References

American Cancer Society. (2005). Helping children when a family member has cancer. www.cancer.org.

Blum, D. CancerCare Connect. (2005) Helping children when a family member has cancer. Retrieved 6/30/08 from www.cancercare.org.

Harpham, W. (1997). When a parent has cancer: a guide to caring for your children. New York: HarperCollins

National Cancer Institute (n.d.) When someone in your family has cancer. Retrieved 7/1/08 from www.cancer.gov.