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The most reassuring things I heard when my parent got cancer

Posted Apr 05 2013 8:08pm

Today I am featuring a guest post by Maya Silver about what it’s like to have a parent diagnosed with cancer. Maya Silver is the co-author (with her dad, Marc) of , the first guide for teens whose parents have been diagnosed with cancer. She lives in Crested Butte, Colorado, where she works as the executive director of the Office for Resource Efficiency and plays in the mountains. She won the Diane Vreuls Fiction Prize at Oberlin College in 2008 and has written for U.S. News & World Report and the Washington Post Express.

As a parent myself with cancer, I am proud to feature the point of view of the child.

Marc and Maya Silver

Marc and Maya Silver


Cancer inevitably causes anyone directly or indirectly affected by it to suffer through difficult emotions. Teens who have a parent with cancer experience fear, sadness and helplessness. They worry. They feel guilt. They hide anger. It’s an uncomfortable time, to say the least.

I was 15 when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. The news immediately released a flash flood of anxious thinking. It’s easy to get carried away in a downward spiral of “what ifs.” One fleeting fear is reinforced by a random story you find online or hear from a friend and begins to take on a life of its own.

I didn’t hear many reassuring things during my mom’s battle with cancer because I rarely sought out support. My answer to friends’ inquiries about how my mom, my family and I were doing was a curt “fine,” followed by a strategic change in topic. My parents and I elected not to tell my teachers or guidance counselors. I never saw a therapist or visited a support group.

The most soothing thing in my mind was the answer to my most important question: “Will Mom be okay?” aka “What are her odds of survival?” I can’t remember when I asked my parents this question but it must have been shortly after they broke the news to me and my younger sister, Daniela, who was 12 years old at the time. They picked us up from school, turned to the back seat and revealed the news.

We were lucky – I knew that then and I know that even more so now. The answer to my question of survival was a resounding “yes, probably.” In some ways, the knowledge that my mom probably wouldn’t die enabled me to avoid dealing with it directly. I didn’t have to view each day as the possible last. I could more or less banish the dread of a mom-less world from my mind. I could go on with my life.

Anytime I saw my mom, fresh from a chemo round – bald, pale, exhausted, sick – I could swallow my distress with the calming conviction that this was all temporary. Surely, she would be healthy and cancer-free again soon. When I was at a party or a friend’s house, a nagging voice of guilt would often creep up to scold me for not being at home where I could support and spend time with my mom. I could quiet this voice with the rebuttal that my mom wasn’t going anywhere and I didn’t need to treasure final years, months or days.

While the confident belief that my mom would be fine was incredibly reassuring, it also led me to be less supportive and present than I should have been. A small part of me wishes that my teenaged self would have been less certain that everything indeed would be okay so that I would have been a better daughter and forced to deal with the experience in a more confrontational manner.

For My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks (Sourcebooks, 2013) – a guide my father and I wrote for teens whose parents have cancer – we interviewed over 100 teens and experts. Here are a few of the reassuring sentiments that provided many of these teens with solace:

  • Just because mom or dad has cancer, it doesn’t mean you will get cancer. Only 5-10% of cancer cases are genetic.
  • Your mom or dad probably didn’t get cancer for a specific reason or because they did something wrong. Bad things happen to good people.
You don’t need to be a teen angel. You can still keep living your life. You can still talk to your family about school and friends. You can still get mad at mom and dad.

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