Teenagers Could Handle Their Parents' Cancer

Parental cancer was not linked to psychosocial problems in teens

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Imagine you’re a teenager, and you learn your mom or dad has cancer. How would you react? Researchers recently looked at how teenagers coped when a parent had cancer.

A study in Norway discovered that teenagers whose parents had cancer did not have more behavioral and emotional issues than their peers whose parents were healthy.

The authors of this study credited resilience in young people for these findings.

"Learn about social services available for families dealing with illness."

Elisabeth Jeppesen, MPH, a researcher in the Department of Oncology at Oslo University Hospital in Oslo, Norway, and colleagues initiated this study with the notion that they would find more psychosocial (psychological and social) problems in teens whose parents had been diagnosed with cancer.

The research team used data from a population survey of 8,986 Norwegian teenagers — the Young-HUNT study.

Of this group, 143 teens had parents who were diagnosed with invasive cancer before the Young-HUNT study took place.

A total of 61 fathers with cancer had 31 teenage sons and 37 teen daughters, while mothers with cancer had 41 teenage sons and 34 teen daughters.

The average age of mothers with cancer was 45 and the fathers’ average age was 49.

The 143 teens whose parents had cancer were matched by age, gender and residence locale with 429 teenagers whose parents had no history of cancer.

The researchers measured six psychosocial problems: stress-related physical symptoms (pain, bowel problems, heart palpitations), feeling lonely, eating problems, low self-esteem, anxiety/depression and school problems.

The researchers found no significant differences in the psychosocial health of the teens dealing with parental cancer (cases) and teens of healthy parents (controls).

Fewer daughters of cancer patients (7 percent) had eating problems compared with control teens (12 percent), a difference that did not reach statistical significance.

More case daughters than case sons reported physical stress symptoms (48 percent versus 24 percent), low self-esteem (32 percent versus 8 percent) and anxiety/depression (30 percent versus 6 percent).

The authors noted that the differences in  physical stress symptoms, self-esteem and anxiety/depression were also reported by the teens of healthy parents, suggesting that these are general gender differences seen in teens.

“In this population-based study, we found no significant differences concerning psychosocial problems between teenagers with a parent or parents who had cancer and their matched controls,” the authors wrote.

“This general finding is in accordance with previous studies and supports the relevance of resilience in children and teenagers challenged by parental cancer,” they wrote.

Charlotte Howard, PhD, a licensed psychologist and certified group psychotherapist in Austin, TX, told dailyRx News, “How children and teens cope with extreme stress, including serious family illness, is greatly impacted by the security and love in the family as well as the parents' own ability to manage their feelings in a healthy way and encourage their children to process their feelings openly and without judgment.”

Dr. Howard, who is author of the self-help book for couples Awaken to Love, added, “The more parents can allow children and teens to feel their feelings, the more their young bodies can process the stress or trauma naturally and move past it.”

This study was published October 7 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The research was supported by the Helse Sør-Øst Regional Health Trust.

No conflicts of interest were reported.

Review Date: 
October 18, 2013
Last Updated:
October 21, 2013