The dreaded conversation: Telling friends your parent has cancer


Maya Silver

There are conversations all of us dread. Like telling your dad you put a dent in his car. Or admitting that you told a lie. Or breaking up with someone.And then there's telling your friends that your mom or dad has cancer. After your parents told you the cancer news, your mind was probably flooded with a ton of questions: Is my mom/dad going to be okay? Do I still get to go out and have fun? What will my friends (and other people) think? For some, "the friend talk" may not be such a difficult conversation to have. If you're a really open person and have great, understanding buddies, you may not have as much anxiety about telling your friends the news. Many teens, however, may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed about having a parent with cancer. Some worry their friends will view or treat them differently. "I was at boarding school, and my roommate was the only friend I told," remembered Hakeem, a teen from Virginia whose father battled pancreatic cancer. "He probably didn't understand, but he felt sympathetic. I remember telling him he couldn't tell anybody else. I don't want to feel pitied. I didn't want people to change their relationship with me." You may decide that you only want to let a few close friends know what's up. Or you may prefer that everyone in your social circles at school be aware so they understand when you're feeling down. Even if they don't always "get" what you're going through, even if they say the wrong thing from time to time, having a trusted confidante will help you get through hard times. Trying to hide your parent's cancer from everyone will create anxiety over putting on a positive face 24/7 and telling white lies to explain what's going on.Sometimes that understanding friend isn't your best buddy but someone who has gone through something similar. For Travis of Manitoba, his friend who had a mother suffer from and die of alcoholism was the one person who could understand having a mother with cancer. "If I didn't have him, I probably wouldn't have been able to get through it," says Travis, "Once or twice I cried in front of him, and he didn't think any less of me."After I found out my mom had breast cancer, the news was always on the tip of my tongue at school. I wanted to tell my best friends but never seemed to find the perfect time to bring it up. Eventually, I started telling my friends one-by-one. Whenever there was a lull in the conversation, I turned to the friend and said something like, " mom has breast cancer." Then I would diligently answer their string of questions about whether she'd be OK and how I was doing.I have to admit: I never really liked talking about my mom's cancer. Whenever friends asked about how she was doing, my go-to answer was "fine." I never wanted to talk about it but it was comforting to know that my friends were all aware of what was up. Whomever you decide to tell, there are many ways to do it. You can tell all your friends at once–say while you're eating lunch at school or having a sleepover. You can tell friends one-by-one like I did. You can even write an email or Facebook message to your buddies if you just can't bring yourself to talk about it (but check with your parents first–maybe they haven't told all their friends and don't want the news leaking out online). Or you can tell one trusted friend and ask that they "be your messenger," letting others know so you don't have to have that conversation over and over again.Once your friends know, you will find that some give you just what you need and others don't. When my dad and I wrote My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks, we spoke to over 100 teens whose parents fought the disease. Thirty percent said their friends "were always there for me," 45 percent said they were "somewhat helpful" and 25 percent said "they just didn't understand." It's important to let your friends know what you need so they can be supportive–and to be forgiving when they don't always say the exact thing you want to hear. Let them know whether you want them to bring it up. Alert them if you want them to keep the news a secret. Finally, tell them what you need and be willing to accept support. Some teens find it hard to ask for help. "Don't shut people out," says Pat Lee, a breast cancer survivor from Alabama, a single mom of two teens and director of Students of Survivors and Athletes Kicking Cancer. "When people want to help, let them...Let people help because they want to do that. Because they love you and it's a good thing...Embrace it. Accept it. And let it be what it is for the time." Maya Silver is the co-author of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real Life Advice from Real Life Teens (with her father, Marc Silver). She was 15 when her mother was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. She lives in Crested Butte, Colorado. The book is now available through Amazon.

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