So, what is cancer?

Cancer is a disease of the cells, the body’s basic building blocks.Our bodies constantly make new cells to enable us to grow, to replace worn-out cells, or to heal damaged cells after an injury. Cancer cells start out as good healthy cells that turn bad. Cells may grow into a lump called a tumor, which can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancer). Cancer cells take on abnormal life cycles. They grow and divide like normal cells but, instead of dying, they keep growing and dividing. The problems arise when cancer cells go berserk, grow uncontrollably and sometimes outlast and overtake good cells.


Physical aspects of cancer

A cancer diagnosis is usually detected by its symptoms. Signs and symptoms of cancer are usually related to many other common illnesses, so a visit to your regular doctor does not usually confirm the diagnosis of cancer. Persistent ill-health will result in further investigation through x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and laboratory findings, upon which identification of cancer may occur. Common symptoms of cancer may include:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Headaches
  • Persistent pain in bones, joints, the backs of legs
  • Lumps, excessive bruising, bleeding
  • Nausea
  • Constant tiredness
  • Recurring and unexplained fevers

However, just because you have some of these symptoms, you don’t necessarily have cancer! You have to see a doctor!!!!


Questions to ask the doctor
  • What type of cancer do I have?
  • What does this mean in everyday language?
  • What part of my body does the cancer I have affect?
  • How do you know that I have cancer?
  • What types of tests are you going to do?
  • Can I get a second opinion?
  • What can I read to help me understand my cancer better?
  • What type of treatment will I have?
  • Does the cancer treatment have side effects?
  • Can you give me more information on my treatment?
  • How often do I have to come into hospital for my treatment?
  • Will I have to stay in hospital for a long time?
  • What happens if I don’t have the treatment?
  • What will happen to my work or school while I am in hospital?
  • What can I do that will help me get through this?
  • Is there something I should eat, activities I need to do?
  • When you talk to my loved ones, please always include me in the discussions.
  • Please always tell me the truth about what is going on.


The good news

Abnormal cancer cells can be treated, destroyed and killed! There is much information about cancer and treatments at your fingertips.

You are not alone!

There are many people out there living with cancer who will support you.


Emotional aspects  … Why me?

The shock of a cancer diagnosis can bring about a number of strong emotions for the person diagnosed, along with friends and family members. Many people think, “Why is this happening? Why me? What did I do wrong?” Emotions may include fear, helplessness, anger, loneliness and confusion. The diagnosis may seem unfair for you or the person diagnosed.

Recovery from these emotions will take time, and sometimes emotional recovery can take longer than physical recovery. Each individual reacts and copes in his or her own unique way. Some people can accept a cancer diagnosis almost immediately while, for others, it may take longer for them to adapt. What is important to understand is that there are no right or wrong emotions or ways of dealing with the feelings that cancer brings.

When cancer is diagnosed, it is a shock for you and your family. You may feel numb, angry, confused, shattered and scared, and want to blame everyone – your parents, the doctor – anyone. Most of us grow up thinking that cancer only happens to old, sick people – not young people or people in your family. But cancer affects people of all ages, from infancy to adulthood, and having a diagnosis in the family of cancer, be it yourself, your sibling or your parent, immediately creates both physical and emotional challenges.

The rest of the world and ordinary life doesn’t suddenly stop when you are living with cancer. Everyday life issues like school, work, sports and relationships continue to be a part of your life. Sometimes cancer may seem to consume more of your life than you would like, but on the horizon is the rest of your life that you want to get on with!!!

Family dynamics may change and a diagnosis of cancer will be one of the biggest challenges your family may ever face.

Friendships may change. Your relationships with certain friends may take on a whole new meaning, while some people you thought were your best friends may drift away. But don’t forget, you may make some of the best friends you’ve ever had!!

Relationships may change. Living with cancer may bring you and your partner closer together.

It may take time for you to figure how best to go about “getting on with life.” Disclosing that you, your brother or sister, or your parent or primary caregiver has cancer to your friends, colleagues or schoolmates may be difficult. You may be concerned that people will treat you differently.  But don’t worry, we have some ways to help you deal with this…



Families come in all shapes and sizes and a diagnosis of cancer may be one of the biggest crises your family will go through. Families may deal with cancer in different ways:

  • Becoming over-protective if a young person has cancer
  • Trying to cope with everything on their own
  • Pretending it’s not really happening
  • Seeking support and assistance from friends and family
  • Bottling things up and not wanting to talk about it

Each family member has his or her own way of dealing with cancer. During this time, life can’t stop. Small everyday stresses which are normally handled easily may suddenly become enormous problems. Conflict can come about as individuals within the family can demand time and attention from each other (at times all at once!). Sometimes, you can find the energy to support each other – at other times, you may have enough trouble just looking after yourself.
Some families get stronger and others grow further apart through the cancer experience. The family often has to be re-organized; one parent may have to quit their job to look after the family member who has cancer or, if it is a parent with cancer, there may be new roles you have to take on as your parent can no longer do the things he or she normally does. Because each family member is an individual, they will all have different ways of coping.



Your friends are very important to you. You probably spend as much time with them as you do your family so it is understandable that you or your friends may be struggling with feelings related to cancer, much like members of your family might be.
Your friends may be asking themselves a number of questions and may be scared that they no longer know what to say. Some things they may be thinking are:

  • What am I supposed to say or do?
  • How can I be a friend to my friend who is living with cancer?
  • Should I ask how he or she is feeling?
  • Should I talk about how much fun I had last night?
  • Should I talk about the things that are bothering me because they now seem so trivial compared to what my friend is going through?
  • What will I do if I lose my best friend?

Your cancer experience may be the first time you or your friends have had to confront a serious illness and the fear of loss. Knowing how to come to terms with what is happening may take time and you will need good communication with your friends. Your friends may need your assistance at this time to overcome their discomfort, and often you will have to make the first move towards them to let them know that you are able to talk. It is up to you to decide when you are ready to do this.

Friends can be really important in readjusting too. They can make it easier to go back to school or work and can take you out and about when you just want to have fun!!

You may also make new friends as a result of your cancer experience. It can be good to have a friend who has been through a similar situation as they may be able to support you in ways that other friends can’t.

The friends you keep and the new friends you make will see you through the good and the bad…. because that’s what friends are for!

Friends can be an amazing source of support in times this. Friends often seem to know you better than anyone else. When you tell your friends what is happening, it can be such a relief to get it off your chest. It really does help to talk about it. Often talking with someone from outside your family can give you a different perspective. Odds are, your friends won’t know much about cancer so they won’t have all the answers (duh?) but they will listen and can often provide you with an escape away from it. Laughing and having fun with friends can make the stress and worry disappear and make you feel better, at least temporarily.Friendship and support bring positivity to life and allow you to hold on and see the bright side and the optimistic possibilities to all situations. They bring certainty in an uncertain journey.

Friends may not know what to say or do and they may worry about upsetting you more. They might wonder how to be a good friend or whether they should talk to you about things that are bothering you. When your friends don’t know what to say, it can be really hard for you to deal with. You may think they are avoiding you, but they are probably just worried about doing something wrong. You might have to help them out and tell them to just act like a normal nut-case. Be prepared for some strange questions and comments. You might feel left out. Try not to be too resentful or angry because of this. Find ways to stay connected and keep in touch. It is amazing how common experiences can lead to friendships. Along your way, you may connect with other young people who are going through the same thing. It may be easier to talk to them about what it happening to you because they understand. Many young people say that this is the best support. You may also lose some friends along the way. Some people find it too hard. Some friends may act weird when you tell them what’s going on. They might ask uncomfortable questions. Just remember that they don’t really understand yet. So keep only positive people in your life right now.

The most important thing that has changed is my perspective on life and what really matters. I have found out who my friends are, my real friends. Friendships and my family mean a whole lot to me. It was hard when people seemed to turn away. Now I know who is really there for me and who accepts what I am going through.


What can you do to help friends and family when you have cancer?

Here are some ideas to help you deal with your friends and hopefully get the support you need.

  • Remind them that you are still the same person they have always liked.
  • Explain what is going on and keep them up-to-date.
  • Things can change …. if you don’t tell them, they won’t know.
  • Let them know when you might need their support.
  • Use Facebook, text, the phone … everything … to stay connected.
  • They might worry that you are too busy to talk
  • Let them know when you are overwhelmed and just need to hang out.
  • You might find that people really want to help but don’t know how…you need to tell them a way.
  • Remind them that you are still the same person they have always liked.
  • Explain what is going on and keep them up-to-date.
  • Things can change …. if you don’t tell them, they won’t know.
  • Let them know when you might need their support.
  • Use Facebook, text, the phone … everything … to stay connected.
  • They might worry that you are too busy to talk
  • Let them know when you are overwhelmed and just need to hang out.
  • You might find that people really want to help but don’t know how…you need to tell them a way.

The best friends are the ones who are there even when you don’t ask. Asking is really tough. Dealing with cancer is way too big for one person to do all alone.



Sometimes when you are close to someone, you expect her or him to be able to read your mind. It can be hard to talk about things that hurt or make you angry. The intensity of the feelings can be scary and confusing for both people in the relationship. Resentment can build up when you try to avoid or deny these feelings. People often go to extraordinary lengths to protect themselves and others, but in doing this they end up avoiding, ignoring, and sometimes pushing away the people that they love the most.
If you are worried that your partner is with you because they feel sorry for you – talk about it! In any relationship, you need to give each other a chance to be open and honest. It can take the pressure off. Once you have done this, it may be up to you to take the next step. Talk about everyday things – school, work, gossip, music, TV shows. Do something special for each other and plan time to be together. Give your partner ways to be involved…just like members of your family they may be feeling helpless. Being able to laugh and cry together is what it’s all about!!


Sports and hobbies

Keeping yourself occupied with the things that you love to do is a great way of coping, as it helps you to relieve stress and enjoy yourself.

Some young people living with cancer find that they have to make some adjustments to the level of participation in their much-loved sports of hobbies. This does not mean that you have to stop participating, but you may need to take it easy with how often and how hard you participate. You might want to check out some of the following suggestions:

  • Try a sport or activity that is less physical
  • Continue to participate, but take more breaks or play for a shorter time.
  • If you are angry about your sibling or parents cancer, have a go at kickboxing! It can be a great way to release some of your anger in a “therapeutic” way!
  • Set some short-term realistic goals for you to maintain your interest or focus.
  • Attend a camp or program that provides a wide range of active or passive activities for you and other young people to enjoy.



Many young people living with cancer may have to deal with issues related to grief and loss. These experiences may result from the death of a family member, a fellow patient.
Grief may not only occur as a result of death. There may be grief associated with the loss of health, independence, confidence, education, employment, friends, limbs, fertility, hair, or the teenage years through cancer. It is important to know that everyone’s reaction to grief and loss is different.

Looking different

Sometimes you may look in the mirror and think, “who the heck is that!” You may not recognize yourself.
Treatment for cancer can change your appearance, be it weight loss, weight gain, loss of hair and scarring. Your body may look and feel like a foreign object that’s not connected to you. You may feel uncomfortable about your appearance and about feeling different. The good news is that, with time, your appearance and feelings about your body will change. It may take a bit of time to get used to. Just remember, underneath all these changes, you are still you!



Many of you were probably at school when cancer came into your life. School is a major part of everyone’s life and is where most of your friendships are developed. Maintaining a sense of normalcy by going to school as much as possible can help you get through your cancer experience.
If you are a young person with cancer, it can be very tough wondering what is going to happen to your schoolwork, friends, and school activities while you are undergoing treatment.

When you are having chemo or radiotherapy and are feeling sick, you will not always be able to keep up with what’s going on at school. It is not just schoolwork you will miss out on, but also the contact with friends and involvement in different school activities.

Many young people who have been through cancer treatment feel that it is important to go back to school as soon as possible.

However, after a long period of absence, you may feel both nervous and excited about going back. You may feel self-conscious about the changes in your life and unsure how others will deal with them. Some young people find it helpful to have someone visit their school to prepare and educate the teachers and classmates about cancer and how to treat people living with cancer.

You may also see a change in your performance at school. This may be a direct result of time off, or poor concentration, lack of motivation or emotional and physical difficulties. If you encounter difficulties processing, retaining and learning new information (more than usual!), talk to your teachers and parents. You may find that the balance between being given the special treatment or your situation being ignored is a little blurred. Just remember that there does need to be consideration to your situation given by others… just doesn’t have to be a big deal!



The decision to disclose your cancer or the cancer of someone in your family to your employer is entirely yours to make. As an employee, you have no legal obligation to talk to your employer about your cancer experience. You need to feel comfortable about what you tell people…it may be a good idea to tell your human resources manager or your supervisor about your life outside work.

As a patient, you may need to take time off for treatment either in hospital or as an outpatient. If your family member has cancer, you may need time off to accompany her or him for tests and treatment or to visit in hospital. Not everyone needs to know everything, but telling some people can be a good idea because then you don’t have to keep explaining yourself when you have to attend appointments or when you’re having a bad day. You may be pleasantly surprised at how supportive your workmates can be when you tell them.

If you start to experience challenges at work because of your cancer experience, promote some changes that may make it easier to continue working (for example more flexible working hours, working from home, or having special equipment to make your work environment more comfortable). If you feel you need help with your employer, ask the appropriate member of the medical team to contact your employer or go to your local cancer support agency for further assistance.

Cancer may only be a temporary setback, but unfortunately the disease does have the potential to affect your future career goals.

If you are interested in a career in a certain industry that requires particular physical or intellectual capabilities, you may need to find out what kind of effect, if any, cancer may have. You may find that it is not exactly possible to do exactly what you had in mind….but don’t be discouraged. Sometimes, career aspirations change out of choice, owing to the cancer journey. The world has lots of possibilities and options … it is just up to you to explore them!