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 doctor 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, a doctor, or a nurse.
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.
Doctors and nurses are not always sure why cancer occurs. This is especially true with childhood cancers. But they do know the causes of some types of cancers. For example, doctors 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 doctors 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 their 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 them to a clinic visit or any of the other appointments they 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 doctors and nurses and ask them questions.
Surgery. Doctors 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 doctor, 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. Doctors 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 occur 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 can expect.
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 doctors 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.
- Dozier, Tennille, RN, BSN, RDMS
- MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician