Friday, 28 September 2018

Weekly discussion summary ~ Impact on our teenage children

“Telling our teenagers about our diagnosis with breast cancer was one of the hardest things we’ve had to do.”

This week we discussed the impact of our breast cancer on our teenage children's emotional wellbeing, their reactions and ways of coping. 

Naz told us that research shows that teenagers whose mothers are diagnosed with breast cancer often react with confusion and mixed feelings. They often feel torn between wanting to help and wanting their own lives. They may worry that they are more likely to get cancer now? They are afraid that they will lose their mother and then what will happen? A main finding, Naz shared, was a tendency to internalise feelings which can mean higher rates of depression and anxiety in teens with parents who have cancer compared to those with parents with ‘no cancer.’ 

Feelings of helplessness can lead to avoidance in our teens, both of us and of the feelings. This was something that many of us could relate to, with teens (and younger adult children) showing little outward reaction. A teenager is old enough to understand on some level but may not be confident enough to ask questions and articulate their fears. 

Our discussion, which included women with primary and secondary breast cancer diagnoses, highlighted our huge worry and guilt about the impact of on our teenage children. It’s easy to blame ourselves and our illness for wayward teenage behaviour, and many of us felt we had let our children down. 

We shared that telling our teenagers about our diagnosis was one of the hardest things we’ve had to do. 

Some of our teenagers were attentive and helpful, others withdrew and refused to engage with us during treatment. Some struggled more than usual with exams, others sailed through. Many of us felt that being open and involving our teens in the treatment plan is the best approach, and for some this had led to a strong mutual support whereas for others, the picture was more complex. Reactions varied considerably but included anger, tears and silence. Many asked us outright if we were going to die. 

Chemotherapy was often a particularly difficult time for our teens. Some were actively involved in supporting fathers and siblings, while mum was ill, others shut down and refused to engage, with a few choosing not to visit us in hospital. Seeing us lose our hair was often particularly difficult - this is such a stark physical reminder of the presence of cancer and can be particularly tough for those teens for whom appearance is a strong preoccupation. One or two families had used humour and coped by laughing about it, but these were few.

A few teenagers were outwardly cruel to us and appeared to blame us for turning their worlds upside down, sometimes in hurtful outbursts, others withdraw and don’t engage at all, not even to ask us how we are doing. Several of us described how our teenager had become so anxious that they had become suicidal. Some of us with younger children at the time of our diagnosis were now seeing the impact on our teenage children – years later. Those of us with inherited mutations like a BRCA mutation described a double whammy effect on our children.

Our discussion highlighted that ‘real life’ does not stop because of cancer and that other loss and adversity, such as a family bereavement, may hit our children – even those who appeared to cope reasonably well with our cancer – particularly hard. Likewise, some teens appeared to cope reasonably well, but went on to develop adverse behaviours later in adulthood. We wondered what role the role the trauma of our diagnosis had played in their difficulties?

Support for our teenagers from schools and mental health services is patchy, some of us reported excellence and others zero help or even damaging interventions. Having someone to talk to outside the family, a counsellor or teacher appeared hugely benefit. We asked why so little support is offered to our teenage children when we are diagnosed? It’s hard to go out and proactively seek it on their behalf when we our own reserves are so low.

For those of us with secondary breast cancer, and some of us with complex treatment histories, our children face the challenge of growing into adolescence and adulthood alongside a mother whose treatment is ongoing.

We are united in our anguish and concern about what having breast cancer means for our teenagers. We want to help them but we often don’t know how. Naz told us that we can do is to love them unconditionally and support them through their ups and downs. Their reactions and responses may hurt us terribly at the time but in the long run, it can be helpful. We can try to remember that what we are seeing is not final, but a stage. 

For all the experiences of adversity and pain, there were examples of resilience, of our teenagers coming through the hardest of times and going on to do well at school, university, and in their work. Our instinct is to protect our children but if we can involve them in our experience with honesty and love, then troubled teens can grow into strong adults, having learned about suffering and sadness. The teenage brain, Naz told us, is at its height of plasticity and therefore has huge capacity to build resilience from trauma.

If you are a woman living in the UK with a breast cancer diagnosis and you would like to join our private group, please send us a private message via Facebook.

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