Cancer and Adolescents


Healing the Wounds We Cannot See: Cancer and Adolescents

As cancer drug therapies continue to improve and oncology research gives patients more options, treatments and time, winning the war against cancer is a goal increasingly within reach. However, whether removing a tumor, limb, breast or node, or administering a groundbreaking new chemotherapy or targeted therapy—these represent the ability only of medicine to treat the physical implications of cancer. Whereas oncology social work stands in an important gap, seeking to address, assuage and heal the psychosocial and emotional impact of cancer for both patients and caregivers. In this article dedicated to the impact of oncology social work, we’ll explore the adolescent cancer community and how it is served by oncology social workers and the programs they offer.

Doubling Up

At present, there are over 500,000 adults affected by cancer in the state of New Jersey alone. Twenty five percent of these adults are raising one or more children under the age of 19. This means that for 125,000 parents with cancer, there are over 250,000 adolescents impacted, not including those who are in bereavement. And this is merely a fraction of the nation as whole. The facts are daunting and the need is profound. Families today have significant unmet psychosocial needs and few resources to turn to which address how a family unit navigates and survives cancer.

Deep Impact

Oncology social work is not talk therapy; rather, it is the place where oncology care meets the physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs of all people affected by cancer. Programs like the Cancer Support Community of Central New Jersey (CSCCNJ) provide services, free of charge, to patients and caregivers of all ages from diagnosis through bereavement. Their high school-based group for teens aims to help them to connect and to process as a means of coping with the already daunting demands of contemporary teenage life. Oncology social work recognizes that being a teenager is undoubtedly already an awkward, hormone-driven, pressure-filled and insecure time of life. When one adds cancer to the mix, isolation and cessation of communication become almost instantaneous foes.

Typically, teens do not find it easy to explain their lives with cancer to those without and consequently, why their friendships must change. Teens don’t relish conversations on why they can’t go to the dance, the movies or the game because mom, dad or sibling cannot be left alone or because chemo has made them too tired. Explaining to teenaged friends why you forgot to call or meet or connect because of brain fog caused by chemotherapy can be dismissed as an excuse or misunderstood by those on the outside as selfishness, melodramatic or uncaring, so teens can tend to simply shut down and shut out their inner circle, thereby, forfeiting much needed support. 

Healing—the Big Picture

Katherine Schaible, a licensed clinical social worker and program coordinator of CSCCNJ, believes that oncology social work centers and outreach programs are integral to surviving cancer whether you are a patient or caregiver. Oncology social work provides, “unique psycho-social intervention and relief to parents and empowers young adults to have the tools to positively influence them throughout their lives… Our aim is to fill their toolbox with how to identify feelings and how to have open communication with family and friends.” Because cancer has such a profoundly isolating effect, and because research proves that the morale and mental and emotional stability of those fighting cancer is critical to recovery, oncology social work programs like this ensure that no one fights cancer alone. Ms. Shaible adds that generalized “student support groups may not make it obvious to a teen dealing with cancer that they have a common plight with other group members.” 

In oncology social work groups, Ms. Schaible adds, “new friendships form and it’s a safe space where teens are empowered to ask questions,” and find connection within a community literally fighting for its life. Teens feel less isolated and more in control when they share experiences with others who can empathize. Within this framework, teens are taught how to deal with their emotional pain and find productive ways to grieve the loss of their pre-cancer lives and families. Great emphasis is placed on identifying and redefining personal goals, acknowledging the positives despite the pain and to see them thriving in their new and functional future.

Circling the Wagons

Oncology social work is an ideal resource for helping those teens affected by cancer as it assists in creating a community of care for them through outreach and education. Teens spend an average of 1,000 hours a year in school. Their “first responders”, that being their teachers, administrators and coaches, can receive guidance and even professional development from oncology social work initiatives to know better how to encourage and serve those students affected by cancer and guide them as they cope with everyday life.

Tangentially, oncology social work aims to serve parents and siblings so that they too can process and seek comfort and connection. Too often siblings of cancer patients take a back seat for obvious purposes to their sick brother or sister. Marriages and finances can be strained, plans for college must be rearranged. Oncology social work then becomes the vehicle for all members of affected families to have the resources to redirect, redefine and regroup with a view to finding their way forward.  

The impact of oncology social work is far reaching in its potential to change lives for the good. For adolescents it provides a platform for them to find community and regain a sense of normalcy. Being given the chance to process in a sympathetic environment, away from the clinical feel of a hospital or infusion center and in the company of peers, they are free to retake control of their futures by being given the tools to overcome their present challenges. Cancer may well be a long and dark chapter of their young lives, but through the assistance of oncology social workers and the programs they facilitate, they have the means and the method to step back into the light.

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  • With thanks to K. Schaible of the CSCCNJ