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Facts & Feelings

What has life been like for you since you found out someone in your family has cancer? What were some of your first reactions?

When some people first find out someone in their family has cancer, they may want to learn about what is going on: what cancer is and what some of the treatments are. Other people feel emotional, and find themselves wondering what to do with their feelings. Many people experience both of these reactions. 

We've created this page so that you can learn more about cancer, and also about the emotions that you might be experiencing since cancer came to your family. Read on!


Get the medical facts

Cancer is an illness, but it is an unusual disease so it is not like the cold or flu. Cancer is a group of diseases in which cells that are not normal grow and divide quickly, in an uncontrolled way. Cancer cells may group together to form a mass, called a tumour.

Image of a group of cancer cell called a tumour

Some tumours grow only at the site where they begin (locally). These are called "benign" tumours. (Benign tumours are not cancers.) Other tumours grow locally but they might also invade the normal tissue around them, or they might spread to distant parts of the body. These tumours are called "malignant" tumours or cancers.

Sometimes malignant cells break loose from the original (primary) tumour, get carried to other parts of the body and start growing in the new site as an independent secondary cancer. A tumour that has spread in this manner has "metastasized" and the secondary tumour (or tumours) is called a "metastasis" (or "metastases"). The image below shows normal cells and cancer cells illustrates the invasiveness of cancer.


There are over 200 different types of cancer. Some are more serious than others. Some cancers grow very slowly, others grow fast. Typically, the name for the cancer comes from the part of the body or type of cell in which it begins. For example, cancer that begins in the lung is called lung cancer. When one type of cancer spreads to another part of the body, it doesn't become another type of cancer - it is the same cancer in a new place and keeps its original name.

Different types of cancer vary in their signs and symptoms, how fast they grow, how they spread, and how they react to different treatments. This is why it is important to accurately diagnose a cancer, so that the right treatment for your family member begins as soon as possible. Diagnosis involves carefully examining the cancer cell and its characteristics, and finding out where the cancer is located throughout the body (the "stage" of the cancer).


Cancer is caused by changes inside the cell, which cause the cell to grow too quickly or to crowd out healthy cells. The body usually controls the growth of cells into mature cells, but in cancer, the body's control mechanism doesn't work properly and the cancer cells increase in number and can spread. These cellular changes may be caused by exposure to some chemicals, radiations, air pollution (smoke), certain viruses and other factors inside and outside the body. You can't catch cancer from someone else. It is not contagious. 

There is still a lot we don't know about how cancer begins and what causes it. Researchers around the world are working hard to find the answers.


Cancer treatment is used to remove cancer cells or to stop them from growing and making new cancer cells. There are many different types of treatment; each kind of cancer needs a different kind. More than one kind of treatment may be used at the same time or at different times. Doctors may use surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, biotherapy, hormone therapy, and stem cell transplantation treatment. Surgery is not always the first treatment. Sometimes radiation therapy or cancer drugs are used to shrink the tumour prior to surgery, or chemotherapy may be the best first option.

Teams of health-care professionals work together (scientists, physicians, nurses, pathologists, radiologists, pharmacists, nutritionists and counsellors) to research and develop treatment policies and guidelines for specific cancer types, based on solid, scientific evidence.


"Side effects" of cancer treatment happen because some healthy cells are damaged, usually only temporarily. Some side effects are visible - we can see the, (hair loss, mouth sores, changes in skin or weight, a scar, or change in the shape of the body). Some side effects are invisible - we can't tell just by looking at someone (feeling tired, feeling sick to their stomach, wanting to rest more, not being able to work or play normally). With help from doctors and nurses, and when the treatment ends, the side effects usually go away. Some of the side effects of treatment are long lasting or permanent (for example, a scar from surgery). Other side effects are temporary, such as hair loss from some kinds of chemotherapy



Read about feelings

Chances are, this last while you’ve felt like you’ve been on an emotional rollercoaster. Anger, fear, sadness, frustration, obligation, shock, uncertainty, guilt, denial, hope, love, loneliness, happiness. These are some of the emotions commonly experienced by other teens that have a family member living with cancer. 

It’s important to know that it is okay to feel the way you feel, however it may be. Some people might assume that because your parent has cancer you will be sad all the time. But, you are allowed to feel happy when something in your life is good or going well. Other people might assume that you need to just accept that cancer has come to your family. But, it is okay for you to feel angry or fearful about this at times. 

Feelings don’t stay the same; they change in intensity and sometimes they stop and start again. Sometimes your emotions will change quickly. All of this is quite normal. 

Plutchik's Emotion Wheel

Here is a wheel showing the different types of emotions that people experience (the most intense emotions are in the middle, the more mild are on the outside.) It is called Plutchik’s Emotion Wheel. Where would you be located on this wheel right now? Where have you been located in the past?

Image of a graph showing different types of emotions that people experience

Anger has a bad rap these days. The problem with anger, though, is not feeling it--it is usually the things we do when we feel it. It is definitely okay to feel angry when something awful happens to us. A lot of times we say and do things when we’re angry that we end up really regretting. So we need to find ways to feel and get anger out in ways that don’t hurt ourselves or anyone else


It is easy to feel bad about having fun when someone in your family is sick. It can also be annoying if no one at home is smiling or having a good time. 

But, we NEED to have fun. It keeps our bodies and minds balanced. 

Make sure you keep some fun things in your life every day - a tv show, a comic, a friend who makes you laugh, your pet, a sport… What are some things that you could do for fun? 



In life we lose a lot of things. In any day, you might lose something important to you, like the chance to hang out with someone you like, or receive a lower mark in a test you thought you did well in, or not win an important playoff game in sports... Death is not the only kind of loss we experience. We humans are used to dealing with loss, but it HURTS, and it usually SUCKS.

Losses can be both big and small. Grief is one of the ways we deal with big losses. It’s a heavy duty word that can scare people off.

A few facts about grief: It naturally happens. It is not just emotional, it is physical too. When we’re facing a loss, we get more tired. We don’t concentrate as well. We feel aches, and sometimes we get sick or catch colds more easily.

Dealing with death

Many people make a complete recovery from cancer, but some people live with health complications after the diagnosis, and others die. If your loved one dies, there may be even more feelings that you might experience.

Back in the 1960’s, a psychiatrist and author named Elizabeth Kubler Ross proposed the Five Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These might be some of the emotions you might experience, but it is important to know that everyone is different in how they experience grief. There is no definite formula for your feelings. Be generous with yourself and give yourself time and space to heal.

You can check out these websites for more information about grief:

The Dougy Centre also provides resources for teens who are grieving.

Youth in BC has information about grief, and offers both a chat and distress line.

Sadness is something that all people feel at points in their lives. It is a feeling that tells us we care about something and we are hurting because of it. Everyone feels it, but it is hard for many of us to show it.

You and your family may be feeling a lot of sadness off and on now. That is to be expected. See if you can allow yourself to feel it, and not try and cut it off. Is there someone you can be sad with? A friend or a pet? Is there somewhere safe you can feel sad? Perhaps in your bed, a favorite tree or a park?

Facts about crying & tears

Emotional tears (tears that come out when we cry) are chemically different than tears that come out when we’re cutting onions or standing in a strong wind. Emotional tears contain some hormones and chemicals that actually produce a feeling of relief or calm in the body when released. That’s why sometimes we really do “feel better after a good cry”.

So it is natural, and even helpful to cry when feelings of sadness come over you. If you find that you are crying all the time and can’t stop, however, it is probably a good idea to speak to an adult you trust or a counsellor. 

Sometimes you might notice you cry when you’re happy as well. That is because tears also can come when we feel a lot of positive emotion.


Stress is the way your body reacts to a challenge. It is something we experience every day, and it is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it can make you feel awful, but other times (like when you are playing sports) it can help you perform your best.

Stress can come from any situation or thought. It certainly will come when someone you love is dealing with a serious illness like cancer.

People under a lot of negative stress often feel things like:

  • Heart beating faster
  • Breathing more quickly and less deeply
  • Palms becoming sweaty
  • Cold hands or feet
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Rarely feeling relaxed
  • Wanting to escape a situation
  • Difficulty sleeping or resting
  • Feeling fidgety
  • Being tired all the time
  • Not enjoying things they normally enjoy

What helps?

If these things don’t help and you are feeling stressed all the time, you may want to talk to someone you trust or go to see a counsellor or your doctor. These are some things that can help alleviate stress:

  • Getting outside for a walk
  • Taking more time to get things done
  • Yoga
  • Deep breathing, meditation
  • Listening to music that you like
  • Getting more rest when you can
  • Taking some pressure off yourself and your expectations
  • Practicing mindfulness (if you would like to learn more about mindfulness, check out the Mindful website where you will find tools, articles and resources)

  • Watch the video - Managing stress while living with cancer

There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you need some help to handle the stress. We all need help sometimes.


Sometimes it is helpful to know what someone else has learned from a similar experience. Read what Dan has to say. Words of wisdom from a teenager.pdf

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