Supporting young people with cancer
Jenny Makinson, Psychologist at Maggie's Aberdeen, writes about supporting young people with cancer.
It’s not easy being a young person today.
Young people face big decisions about work, relationships, education and life in general.
There are so many opportunities to compare yourself with others and an overwhelming amount of information for young minds to take in about the state of the world.
And that was before coronavirus, and quite apart from also being a teenager or young adult diagnosed with cancer.
This stage of life brings particular challenges
Every young person’s experience of cancer is different but this stage of life brings with it particular challenges which have an impact on the way you deal with a diagnosis.
You might ask yourself, ‘What will I look like when I get treatment? Will I lose my hair, eyebrows and eyelashes? Will I lose that muscle bulk or strength I’ve worked so hard to develop?’
Most young people want to look similar to others their age, or even when looking different is valued by an individual; they want this to be on their own terms.
The late teens and early twenties are a time most of us experiment with and settle on our image, finalising the relationship with our bodies and the image we send out to the world.
Cancer can land like a bomb in the middle of this already complex process, bringing with it changes that cause embarrassment, shame and anxiety.
Another part of being a young person is that you are rushing through life, making decisions, enjoying relationships with your peer group and finding your own way in the world. You might be studying at school, college or university, or working to gain independence and achieve long-held goals.
There are other consequences for young people with cancer: they have to return to live with parents, pause or stop education programmes, and might be too unwell to see friends and socialise. This can bring with it feelings of isolation, difference, failure and missing out – something most young people try and avoid at all costs.
These years are a sensitive period for continuing psychological and social development, meaning that difficult experiences can have a lasting effect on our mental health.
When cancer cannot be cured, these young people will be facing end of life. This is not something anyone, perhaps especially when they are young, expects to face, and they might feel unprepared, scared and full of grief for the life they assumed they would have.
How you can support young people with cancer
The good news is that just as young people can be hugely affected by cancer and other negative experiences; they are also enormously resilient.
Children and young people especially draw on and benefit from their existing relationships and bonds with parents, wider family and friends.
Having secure attachments with others who can listen to them, allow them to express their needs, thoughts and feelings, is central to helping them navigate cancer, distress and death.
To help them do this, it might be that parents or other family members need to consider their own needs and seek their own support, to ensure they can offer this emotionally secure and safe space for the young person.
We have an incredible network of cancer support centres across the UK, so even if your family live in different areas, you can all seek the same level of expert support from Maggie's.
Keeping up with friends is often vital, as is making new connections and friendships with other young people.
Remember though – it’s different for everyone and shouldn’t be forced. But it’s true that connecting with people their own age is often a very protective factor in supporting young people through tough times.
Young people also need their autonomy when they want it and are ready for it.
This can sometimes vary, so always check in with them about what they want control over and what they want help with.
At times they might need much more from a parent for example, at others they might crave complete autonomy with something else.
Ask them what they need, and really listen.
Young people are often either over or under-estimated and suffer from others’ assumptions about them.
They are able to consider and understand concepts and implications like older adults but may also encounter difficulties coping with and processing intense emotions.
Remember practical advice and support – securing access to benefits might enable a young person to maintain their financial independence or getting extra time for exams or assignments might enable them to keep up with classmates.
A Maggie’s Benefits Advisor can support them with this.
Always encourage young people to express themselves however they find it easiest, and when they choose to.
Often parents may worry a teenager is ‘bottling things up’, but maybe it’s just not the right time for them, especially if the diagnosis is new or is taking up much of their energy.
Be there, offer gentle support and keep the doors open for conversations when they are ready.
This could be at any time, even years after treatment has ended.
Joining groups on social media, blogging, art, poetry, song or other forms of expression and support can also really help, so encourage and respect the choices they make about what works for them.
How Maggie's can help
We're here in our centres, on the phone and by email if you have questions or want to talk things through.
Find your nearest Maggie's to get details of how to get in touch.