teens living with cancer

Helping Teens Living With Cancer: 5 Coping Tools

Here is a guest post by Sean Akers, PsyD, a licensed clinical pediatric psychologist here at Children’s.

Teens who are undergoing treatment for cancer often miss out on a lot of experiences that most young people take for granted.

Sometimes, getting out of the house and being around other people—even just going to the mall—is something they can’t do if their immune system is weak.

It can be very hard for them to have to stop and think, “Is this something I can do?” when their friends don’t give it any hesitation. Having to say, “No, I can’t do this” about activities that they would otherwise enjoy can be very upsetting.

Sometimes, they’ll get angry. Or sad. They may start acting out, or they may isolate themselves even further.

It’s important for teens living with cancer to come up with healthy ways to cope with these emotions. Here are 5 tools that can help.

1. Communication

The first—and most obvious—way to help your teen is to encourage communication.

One thing we see, especially in older kids, is that they tend to start isolating themselves more when they’re having a hard time coping.

As a parent, you may wonder what’s going on. Are they feeling bad physically? Or are they depressed?

You want to get them to communicate as much as possible.

2. Therapy

One thing I see as a psychologist is that it is a relatively common experience for kids to worry about burdening their family.

They may see their parents struggling with their own anxiety or sadness about the cancer diagnosis. That may keep them from being totally open with their family about their feelings.

Therapy can definitely help in a situation like that. It gives teens an opportunity to talk about how they really feel about their situation.

teens living with cancer

Some kids come to my outpatient clinic on a regular basis to discuss issues they’re having and talk about coping strategies.

But I also see them when they’re inpatient as well. When they’re in the hospital getting treatment, part of that is just coping with being there away from friends, not able to go to school, and feeling physically lousy.

3. Physical Self-Awareness

It’s also important for teens to listen to their bodies.

There are certainly times when they need to rest, but I also recommend that they be as active as possible when they are able to. Sometimes, teens who can get up and move around choose to just sit and do nothing.

But the human body is made to be active. Just getting their blood flowing and their muscles moving is a lot more helpful physically and mentally than lying around watching TV all day.

4. Family Expectations

I encourage parents to maintain as much normalcy as possible.

That means not changing family roles or expectations too much. Obviously, you’ll have to change some things, especially if your child is in the hospital for treatment.

But at home, you should still have the same expectations of your child in terms of behavior.

Although it’s very easy to totally change the family dynamic and expectations, in the long run, it doesn’t help anybody.

5. Planning Ahead

It also helps to just sit down and actively plan out coping strategies.

For some teens, that may mean making the most of relaxation time. Breathing exercises and soothing music are some of the tools that can help calm them when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

Other teens may find that there are certain activities that they really like, such as making art or journaling. Hobbies can be a way to keep them active as well.

No matter what the activity is, it’s important—especially for older kids—to be able to figure out what helps them cope.

Anisa Hoie
I've been a nurse for nearly 32 years, mostly taking care of kids with cancer. My job is to give the kids and their families a personal touch while they go through treatment.

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