Emotional challenges of teenagers with cancer

Dr Johan Ferreira, a psychologist, examines cancer diagnoses in teenagers.


A cancer diagnosis has a severe psychological effect on the most mature and stable of individuals. If such a diagnosis is given to a teenager, the effects can be devastating. 

Teenagers are in the process of establishing their identities and their perception of their physical health is part hereof. To be confronted by a serious illness at this sensitive phase of one’s life can hijack further effective psychological development.

Being diagnosed with a serious medical condition brings most people’s lives to a standstill. The person usually needs time to absorb and accept the realities of the diagnosis. There might be a time of denial, where the person will not, or cannot accept the new route that their life has taken. For teenagers, this is especially difficult because they have not fully established who they are and what they would like from life.

The initial shock of your body having let you down might be replaced by an intense fear of death. Some teenagers do not yet have the emotional maturity to deal with the realities of a life-threatening disease, or at the very least, a disease that will most certainly focus attention on their own mortality.

Fully informed and open communication

It’s so vital that teenagers with such a diagnosis be fully informed of the extent of the disease and treatment options. They should be consulted with parents or guardians and should be allowed sufficient time to deal with the emotional shock. Communication during this time is crucial. Be sure to keep the lines of communication open by having regular conversations regarding the process.

Teenagers do speak less to their parents and caregivers during adolescence, and a fine balance  between their developmental phase and diagnostic needs should be maintained. Be sure to check for feelings of anxiety and depression during the entire process. 

Remember that certain people mask their depression and the signs will not be clearly visible or communicated affectively. The only way to determine whether the teenager is depressed, in terms of mood, is to speak to them often and to encourage them to deal with their emotions.

NB! Family and friends 

Family and friends are crucial during this time. Teenagers are more connected to their social world (away from their primary caregivers). Friends are, and should be, an integral part of their lives.  

During diagnosis and treatment, a teenager might become isolated. Less time is spent at school and socialising with friends due to the realities of the disease. It’s important that caregivers manage the social content of a teenager’s life with them. Encourage them to still partake in social events that they enjoy. They might not be able to join in all events at school, but choose the significant ones and work towards achieving social contact.

Friend burnout

Remember, not all friends will have the capacity to deal with reality. Diagnosed teenagers with long-term treatment plans, especially, have the vulnerability to become isolated because friends are busy with their normalised lives and demands. 

Support is needed for a teenager to remain as connected as possible. The fewer friends who stay connected to an ill teenager, the higher the probability that these friends may become emotionally depleted by the demands of the support that is needed.  

Attempt to keep the support base broad by normalising the contact with family members and friends as far as possible. Sometimes it is best to keep the topic of cancer away from a good social visit.  

Professional support

It’s essential that a teenager is supported professionally. A psychologist or counsellor that can provide long-term support is of great value. This relationship is directed at managing the psychological and emotional process without becoming involved in the day-to-day challenges.  

Parents and caregivers should also see to their personal emotional needs by joining a support group or entering into supportive counselling. These groups provide a safe space for parents and caretakers to speak freely about challenges and frustrations. They’re often also a great referral base for hurdles that might arise. Do not attempt to walk the road alone.  

Dr Johan Ferreira is a psychologist in 
private counselling practice and he is also the director of psychological services at 
Wholeness@Mosaiek.

MEET OUR EXPERT – Dr Johan Ferreira

Dr Johan Ferreira is a psychologist in private counselling practice and he is also the director of psychological services at Wholeness@Mosaiek.


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