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The Forgotten Caregivers


When people think of caregivers, they often think of adults taking care of their elderly family members, but that is not the reality for many adolescents and young people who are forced into distressful situations when loved ones are diagnosed with cancer.

In my 25 years as a college professor, I often spoke of my cancer experience, which made me the go-to faculty member for students who learned a family member had been diagnosed with cancer.

Often the students came to me in distress, having just received the phone call about the diagnosis — usually followed by a parent telling the child that they didn’t want to call them and disturb their studies and to please keep working and not come home.

What this usually meant for the student was significant distress. They often wanted to go home to be with their family during this time and needed my help in finding a way to convince their parents to agree.

It was a hard question for me, particularly as my daughter moved on to college and I began to understand the need to protect her life from my life so she could focus on the job at hand.

But, ultimately, I have to agree with the students. How can they be expected to study when someone they love is suffering? Just the not knowing was so distressing to a number of my students that they couldn’t go to class, much less concentrate. I think that if a parent imagined getting such a call, they would realize how absurd it is to tell a child that someone has cancer but they shouldn’t worry.

Cancer is a huge, life-changing event for a family and the power of the experience in a young person’s life should not be underestimated. What is a semester at college, which can be repeated, compared to the learning and self-understanding that comes from being with your family in such a stressful time.

What is more important? Sophomore English or being present to feel the life-changing experience that is a family in distress and supporting loved ones in a time of crisis.

Life isn’t just about going to class. Learning isn’t just about tests.

Of course, every family has its own dynamics, some of which make the experience easier — or harder. But it will all come down to communication. Ask your child what he or she wants to do and then let them know what you feel. Find a compromise, work out a solution that everyone agrees to.

Also remember that in step families, a child may view the stepparent as a parent, adding a complication to an already difficult situation and often putting the child in the middle.

I remember one young woman who was so distraught about her step mother’s cancer diagnosis that she could barely function. She wanted desperately to go home to be with her father and stepmother but had been raised by her mother, who also paid for her college. She was terrified of hurting her mother but wanted to be there for her father and stepmother.

I encouraged her to talk to her mother and be honest with her about the conflict she felt, which she did. Her mother was very supportive of her need to be with her father and worked out transportation for her to visit. The crisis brought them all closer in the end.

Adolescence and young adulthood are a hard time for children to cope with cancer. They are trying to separate from the family but still need the connection for their own sense of security — often in ways even they don’t understand.

The only thing a parent can do is be honest, listen and try not to protect them from life.

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