Just for Teens

by Rachael Phillips

What is Cancer?

Cancer is the spread of abnormal, or sick, cells throughout the body.

According to Nancy Keene in Chemo, Craziness & Comfort: My Book About Childhood Cancer, every year in the United States, about 12,400 kids from birth to nineteen years old are diagnosed with cancer. The most common cancers seen in children and teens are leukemias and brain tumors.

Leukemia is a cancer that affects white blood cells and is the most common cancer seen in adolescents. There are two kinds: Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (otherwise known as ALL); and Acute Myelgenous leukemia (AML).

Brain tumors can affect the way a person thinks or moves. There are about 2,200 children 19 or younger who are diagnosed each year. Most tumors are either surgically removed or treated with radiation and/or chemotherapy.

“When I was in 8th grade, my best friend Emily was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. I wanted to continue to be a good friend to her and support her, but I wasn’t sure how to best be there for her. After talking to my friends who also knew Emily, I realized that there are many teens that are going through a situation similar to mine, with no resources or guides to help them. So for my Girl Scout Gold Award Project, I have worked with CancerPartners (formerly Gilda’s Club) as well as other teens that are fighting cancer or have close friends fighting cancer, to create a resource page designed by a teen just for teens.”

—Rachael Phillips

How is Cancer Treated?

Treatments of cancer range from one operation to medicines taken over the course of a few years. Frequent tests are done on the patient to check the effectiveness of the medications. Physical exams, taking a patient’s temperature, checking their vital signs, x-rays, and blood draws are done fairly often. CT Scans (also known as CAT Scans), PET Scans, and MRIs are also common tests done on cancer patients.

CT Scan (CAT Scan- a Computerized Tomography): a process that combines x-ray images and a computer to generate a 3D image of a patient’s internal organs and body structure. It is used to locate abnormal structures in a patient’s body and/or help a doctor accurately place treatments. CT Scans are painless and detect changes in the structure of a patient’s body and internal organs.

PET Scan (a Positron Emission Tomography): similar to CT Scans, is a process that combines x-ray images and a computer to generate 3D images that show a doctor how a patient’s organs and tissues are working. The patient is given a small dose of a radioactive chemical called a radiotracer, typically through a vein in their arm. The tracer is absorbed by the organs and tissues, allowing the machine to detect and record the location of the organs and tissues and create a 3D model. PET Scans are used to measure vital functions including blood flow and oxygen use, as well as detect cancers and central nervous system disorders. It differs from a CT Scan or MRI because a PET Scan reveals changes in the cellular level.

MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): a scan that uses radio waves and a magnetic field to generate images of a patient’s internal organs and tissues. MRIs are painless, but are very loud. Patients must wear headphones for protection. CT Scans, PET Scans, and MRIs are taken in a large donut-like, tube structure that makes some patients feel claustrophobic.

The most common treatments include:

  • Surgery (operation)
  • Transplants: another person donates their healthy cells, bone marrow, or blood stem cells to the cancer patient
  • Chemotherapy (meaning “chemical treatment”- chemo for short): given through pills, liquid, IVs, spinal taps, or shots; it travels throughout the body
  • Radiation therapy (the use of high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells): goes directly to the cancerous cells
    • External: Radiation is given from a machine usually five times a week
    • Internal: Radioactive seeds or disks are put in or near the tumor

Each medication a patient takes often has side effects. The most common are:

  • Hair loss- from chemo and some radiation treatments
  • Skin- Rashes, redness, itching, peeling, dry skin, acne
  • Weight change- from medications, chemo, and/or radiation
  • Fatigue

Some medications have long-lasting side effects like weakening the heart. This can make it hard to return to activities such as football and weightlifting; however other sports such as soccer and activities such as dance are still feasible. Some medications can also cause changes in fertility, the ability to have children.

So what do you do if your friend is diagnosed with cancer?

You might be confused, worried, and unsure of what to do. It’s important to remember you aren’t the only one feeling these things.

Good thing to say: I’m going to make a dessert for you and your family. What sounds yummy?

Not so good thing to say: What do you want me to do for you?

Good thing to say: I want you to know I’m thinking of you. Don’t feel like you have to text me back.

Not so good thing to say: Did you get my text? You haven’t responded.

Good thing to say: You must be going through a hard time. I’m here whenever you want to talk, hang out, or catch a movie.

Not so good thing to say: At least the doctors found it early!

Good thing to say: It’s great news that you are nearing the end of your treatment.

Not so good thing to say: You only have two more chemo treatments left.

Good thing to say: I’ll always be here to support you.

Not so good thing to say: You’re going to be fine! or It’s going to be okay.

Good thing to say: We will miss seeing you at school and look forward to when you return.

Not so good thing to say: At least you get to take a few months off from school.

Good thing to say: I’m sad to hear about your diagnosis. I’m here whenever you need me.

Not so good thing to say: Not saying anything.

How to be a good friend to a teenager with cancer

Do: Offer to visit often.

Don’t: Be afraid to hug your friend.

Do: Be a good listener when your friend is ready to talk.

Don’t: Avoid the subject of cancer if that’s what they want to talk about.

Do: Talk about school, sports, activities, other friends, etc.

Don’t: Be afraid to talk about your life. They are still interested in hearing about you.

Do: Be yourself. Be sincere.

Don’t: Be afraid to admit that you don’t know what to say when you really are at a loss for words.

Do: Respect how they choose to deal with their diagnosis.

Don’t: Discount the real feelings they may be having by telling them not to cry or be afraid.

Do: Write letters, send emails, or send texts.

Don’t: Be afraid to ask how they are feeling.

Do: Stay in touch.

Don’t: Hesitate to call, leave a message, or send a text or email to let them know you are thinking of them.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I visit my friend? Does my friend want to see me?

Yes! Your friend needs you now more than ever. They value your support and kindness. However, always be sure you call first to make sure your friend is ready for a visit. If they are in the middle of a nap or simply not feeling up to it, call back a little later to schedule a visit.

Does my friend want to talk to me?

Yes. Your friend wants to know what’s happening at school, on the sports team, and with all your friends. They may also reach a point in time when they want to share with you what’s happening to them. It might take a while for them to be comfortable sharing about their cancer, but they want to know that you will be there to listen when they are ready.

Should I visit in person? Should I call/text/email/write a letter?

Making personal visits every so often is important. Sending quick texts to a friend lets them know you are thinking of them and still care about what’s going on in their life. Emails work well when your friend is out of town, and letters allow for a keepsake your friend can look back at later. It is important to stay connected with your friend, no matter what’s going on. Fighting cancer can be a lonely process, and they want to know you’re there for them. If you don’t know the best way to contact them, just ask!

What will my friend want to talk about?

Anything and everything! They will want to know what’s happening in your life, at school, and at clubs/activities/sports teams they participated in. They might also want to talk about what they are experiencing. It is important to pay attention to what your friend wants to talk about. Don’t be afraid to tell stories and to laugh at funny memories. After all, laughter is the best medicine. But don’t be afraid to talk about the tough stuff too, and allow for sadness. The most important thing is to keep it real, but keep it positive.

What's the best way for me to help?

There are many ways:

  • Visiting/Calling/Checking in. Quick text messages every few days are a sure way to bring a smile to their face!
  • Provide a meal for their family
  • Help their siblings, if they have any. Remember, they are going through an experience very similar to yours.
  • Anonymous gifts or group gifts. Gift cards to restaurants, movie rental cards, magazines, fun t-shirts or crazy socks, photo gifts (scrapbook, memory blanket), etc.
  • Funny cards to make them LOL
  • Laughter is important, but can be hard to come by during these times. A funny card signed by you is a good way to make them feel better.
So what if the worst happens?

My friend Emily fought her brain tumor for fourteen months. She demonstrated a great amount of courage, faith, and strength. After she passed away, I wasn’t really sure what to do next.  Here is what I discovered to be true:

  • Parents really appreciate the love of their child’s friends. So don’t be afraid to tell their parents how much your friend meant to you.
  • Your support is still needed. Send a card to their family. Include pictures you have of your friend. My mom and I sent a card to Emily’s parents after we heard she passed away. We continue to send cards to her parents every year on the day she died as well as her birthday. It doesn’t take the pain away, but it lets them know we are thinking of them and have not forgotten Emily.
  • Hearing about their child will make parents proud. So talk about your friend. Tell their parents a funny story they might not have heard, or a special memory you have of your friend.

One of the things we were asked to do at Emily’s Celebration of Life was to write a funny or special memory we had of Emily that her parents had not witnessed. I wrote about the time we were away at Girl Scout camp together and went horseback riding for the first time. All of the cards were collected at the end of the event and given to Emily’s parents and younger sister.

It is important to know that every family handles a situation like this in a different way. Ask your friend’s parents if and how they would like you to be involved in the memorial or celebration of life for your friend.

So what if the best happens: your friend is healthy again and can return to school?

Celebrate! Your friend has come a long way and fought a tiring battle. See a movie or go out for ice cream. Remember, even though the cancer might be gone, side effects might last. Your friend will most likely be tired, and they will get tired more easily. Things won’t be completely back to normal for a while. Continue to support your friend and help them readjust. They still need you…just ask.

Also, your friend will have to continue to go back to the doctors for checkups. This process is normal and necessary to make sure the cancer does not return. Your friend might be nervous or scared. Continue to support them, and be willing to talk to them about it.

If you are looking for more information or another way to help your friend, check out these other resources!

You and your friend should also check out CancerPartners. They have lots of fun stuff for you and your families, as well as a great teen program.