Why did I get cancer?

Ugh. No one really knows why cancer grows in certain people. Most people don’t usually associate cancer with teens. Cancer is more common in adults, so it’s likely that you know someone who has had it, such as an older relative or someone in a friend’s family. But teens can get some types of cancer, too.

Scientists and researchers are working to discover why some people get cancer and others do not. This will help them to learn whether cancer can be prevented.

Doctors do have some ideas about why people may get cancer, though. The main reasons are genetics and certain environmental or behavioral triggers.

The tendency to develop some types of cancer is believed to be inherited — that is, the genes you were born with might carry a predisposition for cancer. For example, if a close relative has had cancer of the breast or the colon, you may be more likely to inherit the tendency to develop those cancers, even though you may never actually get them.

Some behavioral and environmental triggers can cause changes in the body’s cells that push them into a cancerous state. For example, cigarettes are known to increase the risk of lung cancer. Too much exposure to the sun can increase the risk of skin cancer. These types of triggers act on the body slowly over time, so the cancers that may result from them don’t show up until a person is an adult. That’s one reason why teens don’t get the same types of cancers as adults do.

Doctors do know for sure that cancer itself is not contagious, so you don’t have to worry about catching it from someone else or spreading it to another person (although people with certain infectious diseases such as AIDS or hepatitis are more vulnerable to certain cancers).

Cancer is also never a person’s fault. It’s simply not true that a person may have done something wrong to get the disease.

Learn more about cancer and how it’s treated at the Hyundai Cancer Institute website.

What can I do to get help for depression?

The good news is that depression is one of the most treatable conditions. One of the first steps in getting better is to speak with your doctor or nurse. They will be able to provide you with information on appropriate counseling and in some cases medication to help you feel better.

At CHOC, we are able to provide our patients access to a variety of psychosocial services—from social workers to psychologists to child life specialists—trained to assist teens undergoing cancer treatment.

Are there different types of depressions?

There are a number of different types of depressions.

  • Major depression, also known as clinical depression or unipolar depression, is classified as a type of affective disorder (also called mood disorder) that goes beyond the day’s ordinary ups and downs, and has become a serious medical condition and important health concern in this country.
  • Dysthymia, also known as dysthymic disorder, is classified as a type of affective disorder (also called mood disorder) that often resembles a less severe, yet more chronic form of major (clinical) depression. However, persons with dysthymia may also experience major depressive episodes at times. In general, dysthymia is less severed but more chronic (on-going) than major depression.
  • Manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder, is classified as a type of affective disorder and is characterized by periodic episodes of extreme elation, happiness, elevated mood, or irritability (also called mania) countered by periodic, classic major depression. This type of depression affects males and females equally and often begins in adolescence or early adulthood. Manic depression is likely to run in families and, in some cases, is believed to be hereditary. Family history of substance abuse also increases the risk of developing manic depression.

What are the signs I may have depression and not just “a case of the blues?”

If you think you may be suffering from depression, consider the depression checklist below. You may want to go over the list with a trusted adult or friend.

  • Feeling deep sadness or hopelessness.
  • Lack of energy. This may be difficult to evaluate if you are currently undergoing cancer treatment.
  • Loss of pleasure or interest in activities that once excited the teen.
  • Anxiety and panic.
  • Turmoil, worry and irritability. You may find yourself lashing out in anger because of the stress you are under.
  • Difficulty organizing, concentrating or remembering.
  • Negative views of life and the world.
  • Feeling worthless, guilty, stupid, ugly or bad.
  • Drastic changes in appetite or weight not related to your cancer or cancer treatment.
  • Difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep or sleeping too much. This may be difficult to evaluate if you are currently undergoing cancer treatment.
  • Sluggishness that causes you to speak and move in “slow motion.”
  • Avoiding and withdrawing from friends and family.
  • Restlessness that causes you to be fidgety or act up in class.
  • Self-mutilation and suicidal thoughts.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should speak with a trusted adult at once—this can be a parent or legal guardian, other family member or teacher or counselor at school. Your doctor or nurse can help you get the help you need and provide you with the support necessary to relieve your symptoms.

What is depression?

We all have times when we feel down or sad. Depression is a feeling of sadness, despair or hopeless that does not go away. In someone with depression, this feeling can last for weeks or months and interfere with the person’s ability to participate in everyday activities. Depression can affect your mood, thoughts, and behaviors. It can also make you feel tired, less or more hungry or unable to sleep. 

People with depression often see the world in a negative light and may:

  • Be critical of themselves, and feel worthless and unloved.
  • Feel overwhelmed by small problems the rest of us take in stride.
  • Want to give up.
  • Pull away from people and drop out of activities

Depression runs in families, but not everyone with a depressed family member becomes depressed. People with no family history of depression also can have depression. Besides life events and family history, other factors that play a role in causing depression include social environment, medical conditions and negative thought patterns.

How can I feel more in control of my emotions and what’s going on with me?

When you were younger, your parents or guardians made a majority of the decisions regarding your healthcare.  Now, you are a part of the decision-making process.

Making good decisions about your health isn’t as easy as “yes” or “no.” Good healthcare consumers learn as much as possible to understand their health condition and needed treatments.  You should ask the doctors and nurses as many questions as possible.  There are no “dumb” questions—all questions are good questions even if you think they may be obvious, silly or embarrassing.

To make it easier, make a list of questions before your doctor visits.  If you are uncomfortable asking questions in front of your parents or guardians, request private time with your doctor or nurse. It is important to know that your doctors and nurses are not judging you; their top priority is helping you and being there for you. You can feel free to ask anything.

You can also feel more “in control” by:

  • Taking a tour of the Cancer Institute from one of our child life specialists. These tours allow patients to see where they will be at CHOC and what they can expect during clinic appointments, infusions and even surgeries.
  • Talking to your teachers or professors about your absence from school.  Along with the school’s counselors or administrators, they can help you come up with a plan to keep your education going and modify your assignments as needed.
  • Asking friends to lend a hand. Friends can also keep you up-to-date on what is going on at school—both academically (by taking notes or recording classes) and socially (by writing about special events and sending you pictures) when you can’t be there.

While preparing for and undergoing treatment, it is important to simplify your life as much as possible. Talk to coaches or advisors from extra-curricular activities about your absence and efforts to try and reduce your stress.  Those activities will be waiting for you when you are ready.

I have been feeling weird since I found out I have cancer. What should I do?

It is very normal to feel not quite “yourself” after finding out you have cancer. You may feel anxious, scared, angry, sad or even numb at times. You may feel each of these emotions all at once or at different times.

The important thing to know is that you are not alone. At CHOC Children’s, we’ve been treating teens and young adults with cancer for almost 50 years. You can talk to anyone on your healthcare team at any time about the feelings you are having and can provide you with tools for coping with your diagnosis and your emotions.