The following is a conversation with Marc and Maya Silver, authors of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks, the first guide for teens whose parents have cancer. Maya was 15 when her mom, Marsha, was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. Marc, Maya’s dad, is an editor at National Geographic and the author of Breast Cancer Husband. His wife, Marsha, is now in good health.
Marc and Maya, what inspired you to write this book?
Marc: I wish I could say the book came to be because I had an epiphany: Families like ours – two teens, mom diagnosed with breast cancer – need help.
But that is not the truth. In 2001, our family muddled through Marsha’s months of cancer treatment. It never occurred to any of us that our kids might need help coping.
Then, a few years later, our dear friend Anna Gottlieb, the founder and director of Gilda’s Club Seattle, called me to share some essays from the group’s annual essay contest: “It’s Always Something.” Teens are invited to write about how they’ve been “touched by cancer.” Many of them wrote about a parent’s cancer with intense feelings that defy the stereotype of the sullen, uncommunicative teen.
“This has to be your next book,” Anna said.
She was right. But it took a bit of doing. I soon realized that I needed a co-author who had in fact faced a parent’s cancer as a teen. Our older daughter Maya is a phenomenal writer -- creative writing was her major at Oberlin, where she earned the Diane Vreul's Fiction Prize in 2008.
Maya: I have to admit that at first I wasn't crazy about the idea. My mom's cancer is something I never fully dealt with. Even in my early 20s, it was a topic I didn't like talking about. Pouring myself into a book project about it would not only require me to confront the experience head-on, but to live, breathe and dream about cancer as we spent months in research, interviews, writing and editing. On the flip side, I knew that there was a gap in resources for teens dealing with a parent's cancer. I understood that a book like this probably would have helped my sister and me.
Marc: So we began working together to shape a proposal. We realized that the book needed to reach out to teens, but we also knew that parents would probably be the ones to buy the book. So the main narrative would be aimed at teens, but there would be a special section of advice for poor, beleaguered mom and dad.
Many publishers passed on the idea. They didn’t “get it.” Is this a health book? A young adult book? What kind of book is it?
Maya: Our answer always was: It’s a book that is sorely needed. A study published in the journal Cancer states that nearly three million U.S. kids live with a parent who’s a cancer survivor, and about a third of the kids are teens. Yet there are very few resources for this 12-19 demographic. As we found out when we put together our proposal, teens in particular need a lot of help coping. They’re at a stage when they’re separating from the family, striking out on their own. Suddenly, mom or dad’s cancer diagnosis pulls them back to the family. The result: A teen who may be resentful, who may hate being looked at with “pity eyes” by friends at school, who has to deal with problems far more pressing than those of friends who worry about break-ups and break-outs and buying the latest video game.
Marc: Fortunately, our agent was a tireless advocate for the book, and the editorial staff at Sourcebooks understood why this book is an important addition to cancer literature. And so we began our year of intense work on the project, interviewing some 100 teens, parents as well, and many mental health experts. We hope the book can serve as a support group for teens who don’t have anyone to turn to. We want teens to know that what they’re feeling is probably normal. It’s normal to worry still about who’s going to drive you to the prom. It’s normal to be embarrassed by a parent who’s bald from chemotherapy. It’s normal to have a closer relationship with one parent than the other, and to secretly wish that the other parent was the one with cancer.
Maya: We set two rules for our book: Teens, don’t feel guilty. You have your own way of coping, and you don’t have to behave like any other teen in this book.
And parents, do not use the book to make your teen talk if he or she doesn’t want to.
Marc: And we think Bailee Richardson, who was 12 when her mom was diagnosed with cancer, says it all when she shared this advice: “Stay strong. Don’t let it ever get the best of you.”
Maya, you are right, this is a book sorely needed. Being a teen is hard enough; being a teen whose world is rocked by cancer, well that is a whole other ballgame. We all know how hard it is to be a caregiver, and we certainly know how hard it is to be a patient, but we just don’t know or appreciate just how hard our own diagnosis on our teens (think communication, expression, social woes, and hormones). I often worry about the emotional side, the temporary and lasting physical tolls that are really somewhat unknown. Thank you both for this guide and for sharing it with us.
To read more about their journey, please visit My Parent Has Cancer and it Really Sucks
~~If you don’t know your options, you don’t have any~~
Elyn Jacobs is a breast cancer survivor, professional cancer coach, radio talk show host, speaker, and the Executive Director for the Emerald Heart Cancer Foundation. She is also on the peer review board of the Natural Standard Database. Elyn empowers women to choose the path for treatment that best fits their own individual needs. She mentors women who are coping with issues of well-being associated with breast cancer and its aftermath; she is passionate about helping others move forward into a life of health and wellbeing. Elyn has been featured on CNN Money, Talk About Health and more and has contributed to Breast Cancer Answers as well as written for the Pink Paper, Breast Cancer Wellness, Natural Healing-Natural Wellness, Integrative Oncology Essentials, and other publications and newsletters. Elyn lives in New York with her husband and two young boys.
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