Health & wellness

Q & A

How children cope with parent’s cancer

Marc and Maya Silver collaborated on “My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks.”
Richard Nowitz
Marc and Maya Silver collaborated on “My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks.”

Maya Silver was 15 years old when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her mother was treated and the cancer hasn’t returned. But the experience stuck with Maya, now 27 and director of a nonprofit. A few years ago, her father, Marc, an editor at National Geographic who had written about being the husband of a cancer patient, approached her with the idea of collaborating on a book about teens whose parents have cancer. The resulting “My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks” was published last month.

Q. What motivated you to write this book?

Maya: At first I wasn’t as keen as my dad about working on this book. The idea of spending at least a year of my life thinking about cancer and writing about cancer was a little unappealing. But I knew it would be an important resource, because I had nothing to turn to at the time [of my mother’s diagnosis].

Marc: When I wrote the husband’s book, the guys I interviewed knew what I had gone through more than some of my friends did. Unless you’ve lived it, you can’t really understand. By bringing in so many voices from teens and experts, [I hope we] let people know it’s OK to be scared, to be angry, to be in denial sometimes.


Q. What is distinct about the teenage experience of going through a parent’s cancer that’s different from the experience of a younger or older child?

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Marc: Developmentally, teens are in the process of separating from their family and forming their own identities. When a parent gets cancer, it yanks them back into the fold. It can trigger a lot of emotions.

Maya: It introduces a lot more complexity. It’s not just sadness and grief, it’s guilt and resentment. It’s like this thing you don’t want in your life and you don’t want to spend all this time with your family.

Q. Did you learn something about your own journey with cancer while talking to teens for this book?

Maya: [When I was a teenager] I tried to avoid dealing with cancer as much as possible. Once my mom was better, I pushed it out of my life. But [in working on the book] I’d be sitting down with a teen or a group of teens and they’d say, “I felt this or I felt that,” and I said “Yes, I did, too!” Finally having someone to commiserate with, it was a really cool experience.


Q. Did you find some common threads among teens whose parents have cancer?

Marc: A lot of kids didn’t want to be singled out as being the kid whose parent has cancer. They didn’t want kids to give them constant sympathy. A lot of friends would say things that were well intentioned, but would end up ticking off the kid, like “Oh, I know how you feel because my dog had cancer, or my gecko died,” and it was like, no, it’s really not the same.

Maya: It was hard for teens to find friends who really understood what the teen was going through. Because of the limited experience teens have with these kinds of serious issues, they don’t really know how to talk to their friends about it.

Q. Do you have any advice for parents on how to help their teenagers cope?

Marc: It’s really important to talk to your kids, even if your kids don’t seem to want to know about the cancer. One teenager told me he felt like it was a guessing game. He could tell by the looks on his parents’ face when his father wasn’t doing well, but they wouldn’t tell him. The other thing is, you can’t check out of parenting. It’s really important to keep an eye on your teens. If you see things that would cause you concern under any circumstances, that should be cause for concern now.


Q. How has your close-up with cancer influenced your life as an adult?

Marc: Both our daughters have said to us that [they think they will] get breast cancer at some point. That makes me feel so sad. I hope and pray you don’t and I hope they have amazing treatments if that ever were to happen.

Maya: I felt that way for a few years . . . but I think [my sister, Daniela, and I] kind of backed off of that. We both value healthy lifestyles — at least try to increase our chances of not getting cancer.

Interview was edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at