How can cancer affect the lives of teenagers?

wiggles asks: What are five ways that cancer affects a teenagers life?

Hi wiggles:



If you read much on my website, wiggles, you’ll see that I’m a pretty friendly dog.  I basically like everyone.  I don’t hate many things.  I don’t even hate cats as much as I imply (they just irritate me a lot and I want to chase them away!).  But one thing I just DESPISE is cancer!


I don’t like illness in any form, and I certainly hate the sadness and loss of death.  But cancer is such a cruel illness!  It’s so debilitating, and often so horribly painful.  And even the treatments we have for it, most obviously chemotherapy and radiation, are so painful and miserable…


Think of it this way: If you get a bad cold, your coughing and sneezing will actually clean out your lungs.  If you get the stomach flu, you’ll throw up some toxic stuff that’s been in your stomach a while.  If you break your leg, everyone treats you well, and all the cute kids at school want to sign their name on the cast.  But cancer… I have nothing good to say about it!  Yucch, cancer, I hate you!


Okay, now I’m feeling a bit better.  You want five ways cancer can affect a teenager?  Off the top of my big-eared head, here goes:


1)    Loss.  The chances are very high that a teenager will lose someone to cancer.  If they’re lucky, it’ll be someone old and feeble, who’s feeling good about moving on from this life – so the loss is somewhat expected – who isn’t put through too much pain.  And even that’s totally lousy.  But there are so many unlucky versions: you might have a friend your own age who dies of Leukemia, you might watch a beloved grandparent go through months of searing pain, you might lose a parent or be the support for a friend whose parent is dying, you might lose your deeply beloved pet who’s always been there for you.  Loss is devastating at any time, and it’s particularly tough on teenagers, who ought to be living in a self-centered world where they can focus on their passions, their growth… and, yes, their homework!


2)    Health Choices.  Teens like to experiment with danger.  Maybe with trying scotch for the first time.  Maybe with harder drugs (not something I recommend, by the way!).  Or maybe with running up and kissing that person you’ve had a crush on for a year (something I TOTALLY recommend!!!  That’s my HOBBY!!).  It used to be that one of the main experiments teens would try was smoking tobacco.  It seemed like a pretty safe way to “act grownup.”  It didn’t get you drunk and sick, wouldn’t hurt your ability to drive, wasn’t seriously illegal, and didn’t cause any permanent harm to anyone.  Right?  Umm… Not right!  Scientists eventually found that cigarette smoking is the most common cause for cancer in our society.  While you’ll hear about some people who smoke and never get cancer, the vast majority of smokers increase the odds of getting it every time they light up.  Of course, smoking causes all sorts of other health problems as well.  And there are other things that we do that are highly carcinogenic too (too much sun, too much caffeine or alcohol, meat with nitrites in it, or too much red meat at all – especially if it’s charred when it’s cooked).  So teenagers, who really like to live as if there’s no future, have to make these long-term health choices, which are really irritating.  But I’ll be honest with you, wiggles – if one day you got up, ate some nitrite-filled bacon while drinking six cups of coffee, sat out in the sun so long you got burnt, and then threw up from drinking a bunch of vodka – I’d still be happy as long as you didn’t smoke (and by that, I mean don’t smoke anything).  If you can avoid that (especially since it’s so addictive – and once you get sunburnt and throw up, I don’t think you’re gonna crave those other things any more, at least for a long while!), you’re really ahead of the game, my friend.


3)    Health Non-Choices.  Teenagers like to feel they’re taking control over their lives.  How great is it when your parents let you take the car and stay out till midnight!  How fun is it when you go on your first date with no adults around!  And what a drag it is when you get handed a gigantic assignment by your teacher, or when your parents ground you!  Well, besides the health choices I mentioned above, there are unfair situations where you might be exposed to carcinogenic substances and energies, with no say in it at all.  If you live in an area with lots of air pollution, you’re getting hit.  Maybe there are chemicals in your drinking water, or in your food.  There might even be radiation in the air near you (we’re still waiting to see how the cancer statistics turn out from the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster; we can only hope it’s not too bad).  And then there’ll be surprises.  I know a woman who had pretty bad acne when she was a teenager, and her doctor thought it would be a good idea to expose her face to X-Rays, to bring the blemishes down.  Well, it worked.  Her complexion cleared up.  But a few decades later, her face started to wrinkle at a younger age than any of her friends, and then, even though she’d always exercised terrific health habits, she got cancer.  The good news is that she beat it (after months of sheer hell), but it’s nearly a sure thing that the reason she got it in the first place was that her doctor didn’t realize what he was doing.  So did cancer affect her teenage years?  Sure did – she was unknowingly being contaminated by it!  (Now that’ll make you paranoid, won’t it!)


4)    Politics.  Another great thing about the teenage years is that it tends to be the time humans get interested in society as a whole, and how decisions get made.  Maybe you’re obsessed with increasing individual freedom; maybe there’s an international situation you care about getting resolved in a certain way; maybe you’re all about civil rights, or the environment, or a religious cause.  Whatever it is, today, cancer will be in the middle of it.  Should governments control what people can or can’t eat (or drink or smoke or whatever)?  If bombing a country bothers you because it kills and maims lots of people at once, it can only disturb you more that many more people there will get cancer from the long-term effects.  How much carcinogenic material should be allowed in the air or water – and what economic effect would cutting it down cause?  What should the laws be about medical experiments or processes that reduce cancer but go against a religion’s dictates?  You see, human scientists have conquered so many of the diseases that have plagued the world in the last millennium that cancer has become a bigger problem today than it ever was in the past.  And unless a cure is found soon, it will only grow in importance.


5)    Careers.  And that last comment I made in #4 applies drastically to today’s teens, but in a positive way.  How would you like to be the scientist who discovers a cure for cancer?  How would you like to be the engineer who finds a way of reducing the amount of a bad chemical in drinking water?  How would you like to be the soldier who helps end the war that’s hurting so many people?  How would you like to be the politician who creates a law that makes everyone’s lives better, and sells it in such a way that everyone feels good about it?  Well, here’s the crazy thing, wiggles:  YOU CAN BE!  I don’t know how (hey I’m not very good at knowing when to cross the street without a car suddenly honking at me), but I know that your chance of becoming one of these heroes is absolutely as good as it is for anyone else.  The greatest force there is, for this world improving in the future, is the confidence, ambition, and enthusiasm of today’s teenagers.  So do me a favor, would you?  Find what it is that you love to do, and use it to get out there and KICK CANCER’S NASTY OLD BUTT!!!


And the world will love you for it!  None more so than this very grateful pup.



Thanks for the great question,




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