They're scared, sad, mad, helpful, not so helpful … and that's perfectly normal
"When my dad was diagnosed with cancer, my grades went in the toilet," says Reilly, 16.
Katie, 17, pulled a disappearing act when her father faced cancer. "I very selfishly decided to deal with my own grief by pushing it away, going out with friends, [not] spending more time at home."
After her single-parent mom was diagnosed, Lyndsey, 16, took on a new set of responsibilities: "I cook, clean, make sure my mom eats, my brothers are fed." There are new tensions as well: "I hate it when I'm mopping the floor and my mom is like, 'Can you get me a drink of water.' And she always has to have a straw."
After Jose's mom told him she had cancer, he was so mad that he punched a hole in the wall.
These are just a few of the ways teenagers react when mom or dad is diagnosed with cancer.
There are a great many teenagers who've faced that news. A study published in the journal Cancer in 2010 estimates that one million U.S. teenagers are living with a parent who's a cancer survivor. And it's often harder for an adolescent to cope than it is for younger siblings. Teens are pulling away from the family, trying to figure out who they are, hanging out with friends. Then suddenly cancer yanks them back into the family fold.
Those teens are an "unheard group," says social worker Shara Sosa, who counsels teens at the Virginia group Life with Cancer. "They have a lot of needs" — and they may feel that no one's paying attention.
Maybe they're overwhelmed, frustrated, angry. Sometimes they're angry that cancer struck their parent. Sometimes they're angry that the other parent isn't the one with cancer. They may feel guilty about having such thoughts. And they may believe that no one can possibly understand how they're feeling.
"The idea is not to think, 'What kind of person am I for having those emotions?'" says Paula Rauch, a child psychiatrist and director of the Marjorie E. Korff PACT Program (Parenting At a Challenging Time) at Massachusetts General Hospital. "But instead to realize that people usually have some angry, negative, or critical feelings at times of stress. We are not in control of what we feel. That's just how it is. It is normal."
If a teen feels closer to one parent than the other and the super-close parent is the one with cancer, the teenager may indeed wish the other parent were the unlucky one. "That's just natural," says Rauch. And it's very different from just randomly wishing that a parent was dead.
A teen might be angry at a parent with cancer at times, too. Also normal. One daughter complained after her mother's diagnosis, "I can't even get mad at you now because you have cancer. So it's like if I get mad at you, I'll feel guilty and terrible."
"I think it can be really tough to rebel against somebody who's beaten down with cancer and chemotherapy," says psychologist Anne Coscarelli, founding director of the Simms/Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology, who worked with that teen and her family. "What's more," she says, "many adults will send a message to teenagers: Don't get mad at your poor, cancer-stricken parent. How could you?"
This teenage girl shared her honest feelings with mom. And mom shared her honest feelings with the daughter: "You can still get mad at me. Even though I'm going through a hard time, I'm still able to manage that you get mad at me. I'm sturdy enough. It might be hard for me, but I'm still your mom."
As for Disappearing Teens, like Katie, they're not bad kids. That may just be their way of coping at a difficult time.
There are, of course, many ways to cope. For some teens, talking with a close friend or family member is a tremendous relief. But not every teen is ready to open up. "I didn't like to talk much," recalls Luz, who was 13 when her mother faced breast cancer. "I would just draw a lot. I drew what I was feeling. That really helped me."
So did video games. Luz's game of choice was the Ninja warrior game Naruto. "There's a lot of button frenzy," she says. "It felt good winning. I felt the vibration in my hand when the enemy got hurt."
She pauses. "Sounds cheesy, I know." Actually, it's not cheesy at all. While many adults (and even Congress) think violent video games promote aggressive behavior, studies show that the games can help relieve stress. (Although if a teen is playing 24/7 and has dropped his or her friends, that's clearly cause for concern.)
The daily high school grind can be a godsend. "School was just a really good distraction," says Stephanie, 14. Samantha, who was 17 when her mom was diagnosed with cancer agrees: "I could put cancer to the back of my mind for a little while."
Then again, friends at school may make things worse. One teenage girl would get furious when people would say, "I'm sorry." "Why are you sorry?" she wanted to know. "You didn't cause the cancer."
What she wanted was for her friends to say: "Do you feel like talking about it?" Because sometimes she really did want to talk about it.
If she didn't, then she wanted them to say, "What do you want to do — go to the mall, go for a bike ride, just hang out?"
Teens will find out who their real friends are. Emily, who was in middle school when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, remembers all too well a note that a good friend handed her: "I'm the lead in the play right now and I can't handle my friend's mother having cancer."
Fortunately, another pal stepped up: "Robinson just treated me like everything was normal." And that's exactly what Emily needed.
Marc Silver is the co-author, with his daughter Maya, of "My Parent Has Cancer And It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens" (parenthascancer.com) and also the author of Breast Cancer Husband (breastcancerhusband.com).