When a parent has cancer, it attacks the whole family


When Norma Jimenez’s mother was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma for the second time, Norma realized that a life can end at any moment.

“There is no time set when someone is going to die, most think they will die at an older age,” said Norma.

Ever since Norma’s mother got cancer a second time, “the fear had been in the back of my mind that my mom could die,” she said.

ThreeSixty Journalism is nonprofit youth journalism program based at the University of St Thomas in St. Paul. It is committed to bringing diverse voices into journalism and related professions and to using intense, personal instruction in the craft and principles of journalism to strengthen the civic literacy, writing skills and college-readiness of Minnesota teens.

When a teen’s parent has cancer, the teen has to deal with the cancer as well. A parent’s cancer can bring physical and emotional strain into a teenager’s already frenzied life.

“Cancer is a disease that attacks the whole family,” said Norma.

Norma was only 11 when her mother first developed cancer. Her parents explained that her mother had tumors. Norma thought that “the doctors could just take the tumors out and than they would be gone,” she said.

Now 17, the Robbinsdale Armstrong High student has learned much more about cancer, and given her mother’s history, she is both thankful and cautious. The cancer could come back.

Norma remembered more details about the days when her mother was sick the second time. Her mother’s immune system became weaker each time she received chemotherapy which caused her hair loss.

Chemotherapy is a treatment that kills fast growing cells in the body including cancer cells and hair follicles. Her immune system weakened so much that she needed a bone marrow transplant to boost her body’s white blood cell
count, the cells that fight disease.

When Norma’s mother would go to receive her treatments, Norma would often go with her. During that time, Norma and her older sister would talk about what might happen to their family. She began to think more about the future than she had before.

Even with uncertainty in their future, Norma and her family have survived these cancer battles, have become more open to expressing feelings, and have grown closer. Norma has also experienced a place to cope outside her family.

Last summer, she attended a three day camp for teenagers hosted by the Angel Foundation where she met other teens with parents who had cancer and who were going through similar life challenges.

“It was a place where you knew you could trust others,” Norma said.

The experience made her feel less alone. This recurring camp offers a series of group activities in which each activity has a special lesson including stress relief and realizing inner strength.

“Teens’ lives take a back seat,” said Missy Lundquist, co-director of the Angel Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides financial and moral support to families coping with cancer.

Some underestimate what teens go through when their parents have cancer. Teens can have many roles during a family member’s cancer treatment and those roles can be anything from being like a parent to their younger siblings to helping more around the house.

Now that Norma is older and wiser about cancer and has lived with cancer’s effects in her family life, she advises: “Don’t take things for granted, and you should be grateful for what you have.”

In her case, the effects of cancer have not been all negative. Norma now tries to live her values every day. One of these is not to waste any time life gives her, but to live life fully. “I want to be happy when I die,” she said, “knowing that I tried the hardest I could in life.”

She lives life to the fullest by eating healthy and enjoying her close friends. She has a slight fear that she, herself, may one day develop cancer due to that fact that it runs in her family. Her aunt and grandfather both have had cancer. But she keeps herself grounded and doesn’t give in to unnecessary worrying. “I just can’t think about it all the time,” Norma said.

Norma’s mother is in remission now and doing well except for a weaker immune system. In the meantime, Norma still thinks about the future, but instead thinks about what career she’d like. An architect? A psychologist? Or maybe even researching cancer as a cellular biologist?