Living with Cancer & Raising Teenagers: 5 Questions for Authors Marc & Maya Silver

August 13, 2014

Marc and Maya Silver, a father-daughter duo, co-wrote the book My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks. When Maya’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, she decided to collaborate with her father to provide an all-encompassing resource for families with teens who are affected by a parent’s cancer. Their book offers reflection on their own personal experiences and insight on parenting teens when cancer has affected the family.

Marc and Maya recently shared their experiences on an episode of Frankly Speaking About Cancer. Below are a few of their responses. 

1. How may teens react differently to a parent’s cancer than children of other ages?

What we found is that teens have a much more diverse range of emotions that they experience, so it’s not just sadness and fear. It’s also guilt and misunderstanding. They want to be there for their parents, but they also want to go out and live their teenage life with friends. When they do spend time with friends, there is often guilt about not being home. The teenage years are usually a time when teens are pulling away from the family and gaining independence. The introduction of cancer into the family can often make this difficult.

2. What are some tips you have for teens about talking to their friends about their parent’s diagnosis?

It’s kind of a tricky issue because even if you’re friends are well-intentioned, they probably don’t know the right thing to say because they lack the life experience. They may say things like “I know how you feel” or “My aunt had cancer,” which may make you feel even worse. The best advice we can give is to be direct with friends about what you need. For example, you can tell friends to not bring up your parent’s diagnosis while at school or ask them to call you every night to catch up.

3. You mentioned that many teens will often spend a lot of time away from the home when a parent has cancer. Can you expand on why this occurs?

It doesn’t mean that the teen doesn’t care. It just means that it may be difficult for them to be around their parent when they are coping with cancer. They may find solace in leaving and spending time with friends instead of staying at home. This is essentially the opposite of another way teens cope, called “parentification.” In this situation, teens will often take on the role of a parent—doing chores around the house that they didn’t before or taking care of younger siblings as though they were a parent.

4. How can parents help their teens when they react in one of these ways so that the family can still spend time together but still give the teen some space?

If the teens understand what you need from them, it can be very helpful. That way the teens will know exactly what helps the parents and not feel guilty spending time with friends or take on too many responsibilities. However, it’s difficult to change the ways people react, so you have to work with the situation. For some, it may help them to feel needed around the house and spend time with the parent. Either way, you can’t try to force your kids to stay home or go out with friends. The situation is different for every teen.

5. How does the cancer experience within the family affect relationships between siblings?

Petty arguments can often define sibling relationships, especially in the teenage years. Trying to set those aside and working as a “united front” when dealing with a parent’s cancer, although difficult, can be very helpful. Siblings can try to check in with each other every day to see how they can help each other while their parent is going through treatment.

As My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks demonstrates, the effects of a parent’s cancer on teenagers can be challenging. Teens react in a variety of ways, and it is often important for the lines of communication to be open with their parents to find out the best solutions, as Marc and Maya did. For tips on parenting throughout the cancer journey, click here.