Living with Losses (for a child with cancer)

If you’re old enough and smart enough to be reading this, then you probably know that some people think that everyone who gets cancer will die with cancer. Hopefully, you know that this is NOT true. In fact, most young people with cancer grow up to be adults and do the normal things that adults do. That is very good news even though no one will be satisfied until every young person with cancer grows up and leaves cancer behind. Surviving cancer is not easy, of course, and there can be difficult times along the way.

One of the difficult things that happens when you are treated for cancer is that you can miss out on some activities that you like to do. You might miss out on playing on the team, hanging out with friends, going to a dance, working a job to earn your own money, driving a car, being the top student in your class, a year of school, earning a scholarship, going on dates, camping out and being part of religious youth groups. When you miss out on any of these kinds of activities, you are experiencing a loss—the chance to do something important is lost.

There are other kinds of losses for some young people with cancer. Some lose the freedom from adult supervision that they had before the cancer. Some lose a boyfriend or a girlfriend because life is just too different with the cancer. Some lose the physical strength they had before, and others lose the positive attitude they had about life.

Even when you stop being treated for cancer there can be changes where something is lost. In a strange way, being a cancer patient, especially in the hospital, gives you a role to play—someone special to be. For some cancer patients, it can be hard when people don’t see them as special as they were when they were being treated for cancer. Also, some young people with cancer become very close to other patients and staff at the hospital. When they don’t stay in the hospital anymore and have fewer clinic visits, they can really miss the contact with these special people.

Young people with cancer have different experiences, so no two will have the same kind of losses and reactions to losses. Everyone gets some losses, however. For some, it can be very hard, and others seem to have a much smoother time. However it goes for you, what can you do to help it go better?

First, know that if you have any kind of important loss—you miss out on special activities, your friendships change, your image of yourself changes (we didn’t even mention losing your hair!)—you will feel grief. Grief just comes with loss—you can’t have one without the other.

Here are some things you can do to help yourself when you’ve missed or lost something special to you:

  • Give the loss and grief some attention. If you feel sad or mad or upset in some way, find some way to let it out. See the Grief Basics page for examples of coping with feelings of grief. If it was an important thing you lost or missed, the feelings won’t just go away all by themselves.
  • Focus on what you do have—what the cancer has not taken away. The cancer can trick you into thinking that it’s taken “everything,” but it hasn’t. You still have some important things in your life that the cancer hasn’t taken. If it’s hard to see what the cancer hasn’t taken from you, get someone to help you make a list of what you still have and what you can still control.
  • Resist—don’t let the cancer take anything that it doesn’t have to take and that you want to keep. Maybe that boyfriend or girlfriend really wasn’t right for you anyway, so you decide to let that relationship go. That’s OK. Or maybe you can’t play in the games this season, but you sit with the team during the games because being a part of the team is important to you. If it’s important and you can keep it, then hold on. If it’s not worth the effort or it’s going away anyway, then let it go.

You don’t get to choose about having cancer, but you do get to choose how you will handle having cancer. Use your family, friends, and hospital staff to help you deal with the losses and anything you have to miss because of having cancer. It’s hard work, but you and your life are worth it.

The content of this article was contributed by Greg Adams, LCSW, ACSW, CT- Director, Center for Good Mourning, Arkansas Children's Hospital. The article was first published in the Fall 2004 on