Parenting Through Cancer: Teens & Young Adults

We’ve all been there. Those years between being a blissfully unaware child and a fully responsible young adult. Years filled with:

  • the teenage drama of puberty, fashions, peer pressure, driving and texting while driving, suicide and depression, drugs and alcohol, college (or not), cellphones, boy/girl-friends, teen pregnancy, cyber and in-person bullying, and even school shootings . . .
  • the young adult growing pains of financial independence, insurance coverage (health, car, rental, house, life), house and vehicle payments, living arrangements and situations, socializing, drugs and alcohol, and even a proposal and marriage or a pregnancy . . .

Oh, and by the way, your mom has breast cancer.

As if these years aren’t difficult enough, adding a parent’s serious illness to the mix can have your child feeling (in today’s “social-media speak”)



Teens and young adults are able to understand the scope and seriousness of cancer, having witnessed a family member go through it, heard about it from friends, or learned about it at school. Their reactions can be unpredictable, comforting, disturbing, and/or unexpected—despite age and/or gender—and all are completely normal!

“I thought my (teen) would be more compassionate, but in the crappy stage of teenage rebellion (my teen was in), (their) attitude was ‘Oh, OK. So what’s the big deal?’,” remarks Marie*, “But my (younger teen) was devastated and never left my side throughout treatment.”

For Taryn*, “My youngest was going to start college as a sophomore the week before my first chemo treatment, and (my teen) didn’t want to go to school because (they) didn’t want to leave me! It was very hard, and (they) came home from school often to be involved. I made sure that my (older two children) took over ‘caring’ for me, giving (my youngest) permission to go back and resume school.”

Her mother’s breast cancer shaped Taryn’s own parenting through her diagnosis and treatment. “When I was diagnosed, my (youngest child) was the same age as I was when my own mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and then passed away shortly thereafter. My mom shared very little (about her disease), and I didn’t realize how bad (her illness was) when she passed. I missed so many opportunities to do things with her and I didn’t want that for my own kids. I wanted to be transparent and answer all of their questions honestly.”

Due to life circumstances, Daniella waited to share her diagnosis with her teens. “I had gotten my (teenager) Ed Sheeran concert tickets as a birthday gift, so when I received my breast cancer diagnosis at work the day of the concert, I new I had to put on a poker face and try to enjoy the concert, waiting until the next night to tell my children about it,” begins Daniella*. “Unknowingly, this gave me time to process my diagnosis and gain a bit of perspective before sharing my news with them.”

Marie and Ann both delayed telling their children as well. “I took a couple of days to figure out what to say when I told my children about my diagnosis,” shares Marie, and Ann waited two weeks to tell each of her adult children. “I wanted to see my doctor, surgeon, and plastic surgeon, to have completed the tumor board and PET scan, and have a plan in place.” Ann continues, “(Your children) know and have ‘radar’. If something’s bugging you, they pick up on it.” Because of this, Ann allowed her teen and adult children to join her at her treatments, making sure to use their language when talking about her breast cancer diagnosis with them and sharing vetted, reliable resources if they still had questions or wanted to know more.

Unlike young children, teens and young adults can take care of their basic needs independently. This doesn’t mean that they naturally pitch in and help when needed or are able to adjust to the changing needs of the parent with cancer. “I guess I had this unrealistic expectation that going through breast cancer would bring our family closer together,” describes Daniella, “But there was still arguing and nit-picking over little things. I still heard ‘That’s not fair!’ often.” She looked into local resources for her teens, but found that the complexity of teen relationships made it difficult for her teens to feel comfortable. In searching for help, Daniella found that seeing “an oncology psychotherapist helped allay family stress during my breast cancer treatment.”

Because teens and young adults have generally taken over health care for themselves, there is a continuing conversation about breast cancer these parents have with their teen and young adult children, discussions about healthy behaviors, appropriate screening and self-exams, and cancer risk. Now that her children are having their own children (her grandchildren!), Ann brought her grand(baby) with her to one of her oncology appointments. “I showed my doctor my grand(baby) and told them, ‘This is what you gave me.’,” her joy at being alive to hold her grandchildren choking up her voice.

A sincere thank you to Ann, Daniella, Marie, and Taryn for sharing their parenting stories in Part 3 of our Parenting Through Cancer blog series. It takes tremendous courage, and we are so grateful! Look for the final installment in this blog series to be published soon!

*Names have been changed to protect participants and their children.

Written by Amy Tix, Firefly Staffer and breast cancer survivor.

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