What to Expect if Your Loved One Has Cancer
If someone you love has cancer, you're feeling many emotions. You may feel sad, angry,
and confused. It's OK to feel this way. Cancer is a serious disease, and your loved
one will need to see the healthcare provider a lot. It can help to learn more about
what cancer is, how it is treated, and how it will affect your loved one's and your
life. If you have any questions about your loved one's cancer, first ask your loved
one, but you can also ask a relative or a healthcare provider.
What is cancer?
Cancer is when one of your body's cells starts to divide out of control, making many
cells. These cells can create a lump called a tumor. Or, if cancer is in the blood
(such as with leukemia), the cancer cells grow out of control and push out the normal
cells. This makes it hard for the healthy cells to fight infection, help stop bleeding,
and carry oxygen throughout your body.
Healthcare providers are not always sure why cancer happens. This is especially true
with childhood cancers. But they do know the causes of some types of cancers. For
example, healthcare providers know that smoking can cause lung cancer. You can't catch
cancer like you can catch a cold. People can die from cancer, but every year healthcare
providers are discovering new ways to help people survive cancer. It's also important
to remember that you cannot cause someone to get cancer. Just because you were mad
at your father or didn't help your grandmother, does not mean that you caused his
or her cancer.
There are more than 100 different kinds of cancer. Treatment for each type of cancer
is different and even two people who have the same type of cancer can receive different
kinds of treatment. Your loved one may have to go to the hospital or a cancer center
for treatment and stay there for a while. Or, your loved one may go to a clinic a
few times a week for treatment.
There are four main types of treatment for cancer: surgery, radiation, chemotherapy,
and biological therapy. Many times, people have to have more than one type of treatment
to destroy the cancer. For example, someone may have surgery and then radiation to
kill any leftover cancer cells that surgery did not remove.
If you are curious about your loved one's treatment, you may want to ask if you can
go with him or her to a clinic visit or any of the other appointments he or she may
have. Your loved one may not want you to come, or he or she may be happy that you're
interested. Or it may not be possible if the clinic or hospital has special rules
about visitors. But, if you go, it will also give you a chance to meet your loved
one's healthcare providers and ask them questions.
Surgery. Healthcare providers use surgery to remove the tumor and, if able, some of the tissue
around the tumor, which may have cancer in it. If your loved one has surgery, he or
she will have to stay in the hospital to recover. He or she may be there overnight,
for just a few days, or longer.
Radiation. This is when a radiation oncologist, a type of healthcare provider, aims high-energy,
radioactive rays at a tumor. Some people who have had radiation say that it's almost
like getting an X-ray. If your loved one has radiation, he or she will have to go
to the hospital or clinic to get it. He or she will probably have to go a few times
a week for treatment. Radiation is usually not painful while it's happening. However,
there may be side effects afterward. This means your loved one may need extra rest
or care at home.
Chemotherapy. Your loved one may get strong, cancer-fighting medicine, called chemotherapy, which
can destroy cancer cells. Sometimes your loved one takes a pill. Other times, your
loved one has to have a shot or get medicine through an IV. (An IV is a special tube
that can go in the arm, chest, or another part of the body.) Depending on the type
of chemotherapy, your loved one may have to go to the hospital or clinic to get it.
Biological therapy. Healthcare providers use special substances, sometimes called interleukins, interferons,
growth factors, and colony-stimulating factors, to fight cancer. These substances
help the immune cells fight infection and disease. Your loved one may get biotherapy
through a shot, an IV, or have an operation. Your loved one may have to go to the
hospital or clinic for treatment, depending on the type of biotherapy he or she gets.
What are side effects?
Some cancer treatments, such as radiation, chemotherapy, and biotherapy, have side
effects. Side effects happen when the treatment, in trying to kill the cancer cells,
kills healthy cells. Not everyone has side effects, and side effects depend on the
type of cancer and treatment. Side effects usually go away when treatment ends, but
some can be permanent. Common side effects include:
Hair loss is one of the most shocking side effects because we're used to seeing people
with hair. Hair usually grows back when treatment ends. If your loved one loses his
or her hair, he or she may wear a wig or a scarf to protect the scalp. Or, your loved
one may not wear anything. This may make you feel uncomfortable. Talk to your loved
one about how you feel. You may even decide to shave your head so that you and your
loved one are bald together!
What's going to happen to me?
If your loved one has cancer, your life is going to change. Here are some things you
Helping out. You may have to help out more around the house if your loved one has cancer. For example,
you may have to watch your younger brother or sister, or clean the house. Your loved
one will appreciate it if you can help. But, you may feel frustrated with having more
things to do and less time to spend with your friends. If you feel like you are doing
too much, talk about it with someone.
Missing loved ones. When a loved one has cancer, he or she may be away from home for stretches of time,
depending on the type of cancer and the treatment. And if a loved one is away from
home a lot, chances are, another loved one is too. For example, if your mother has
cancer, your father may also be away, at the hospital or working extra hours. Your
well parent or the rest of your family and friends may also feel stressed out and
may not have as much time for you.
Special treatment. If your brother or sister has cancer, it may feel like he or she gets special treatment.
In a way, he or she has to because he or she is sick. But sometimes it can be frustrating
because you may get in trouble for doing something and your brother or sister won't.
Your parents probably want to do all they can for your sick brother or sister. It
may seem like he or she gets away with things because he or she is sick. It doesn't
seem fair, but try not to let it bother you.
Friends. Your friends may feel funny around you because your loved one has cancer. They may
fear upsetting you, so they don't ask about your relative with cancer. Or, they may
not understand cancer, and tease you about it or think that they could catch it from
you. It may help you to talk to your friends. But there may be times when you don't
want to talk about your loved one's cancer or see your friends. That's OK, but try
to reach out to your friends so that they know you still care about them. It's important
to see your friends.
Talking about cancer. If you feel sad, frustrated, or angry about your loved one's cancer and its effect
on you, talk to someone. Your loved one's cancer center may have support groups for
teens, where you can talk to other teens who are in similar situations. Or, you may
find it helpful to talk to a counselor on your own.
What will happen to my family?
Many people today survive cancer, but some people do not. For some people who survive
cancer, sometimes cancer can come back. You may wonder what will happen to your family
if the cancer comes back or if your loved one dies.
Death. When a loved one has cancer, there is a chance that he or she will die. You may be
very scared about this. Your loved one is probably scared too. If one of your parents
has cancer, you may wonder what will happen to you if that parent dies. Chances are,
your ill parent has thought about that. Talk about how you feel. If you feel funny
talking about death with your loved one who has cancer, talk to someone else, such
as your other parent, a relative, or a teacher.
Cancer returns. Sometimes healthcare providers think that they have cured cancer, but it comes back.
When cancer comes back to the same spot, it's called a recurrence. If cancer comes
back and spreads to another part of the body, it's called metastasis. For very few
people, a new cancer can develop after the first cancer is cured. This is called a
second cancer. When cancer recurs or spreads, it usually means that the cancer is
serious, and your loved one will probably need stronger treatment. Again, it's important
to talk about how you feel. It may help to talk to a counselor.
When someone you love has cancer, it can feel like your world is falling apart. It
may be hard to do everyday things, such as going to school or meeting your friends
at the mall. But just as it is important for you to help out your family during this
difficult time, it's also important to help yourself, by talking about how you feel
and doing everyday things.