Identity and self-esteem for teens with cancer

Figuring out who you are (identity) and how you feel about yourself (self-esteem) is a big part of transitioning from childhood to adulthood.

Having cancer in our teens can impact this process in various ways. We might for intance become afraid that our whole identity will turn into “that kid with cancer”.


Independence and dependence

Adolescensce is also a period when we gradually become more independent from parents and parental figures in our life, and this process can also become more complicated if cancer enters the picture. All of sudden, it can feel like we are becoming less independent instead of more. This feeling is not unique to teens – many adults who fall ill with cancer also struggle with how to handle suddenly being or feeling less self-reliant – but it can be even more difficult for a teen to cope with since it happens during the process of independization.


It is very normal for teens to gradually become less involved with family and more involved with their peers. What friends think of us and how we fit into the peer group becomes more important than ever before. Having cancer as a teen can intensify issues with self-esteem and self-confidence, especially if we feel that the illness makes us the odd one out in our peer group.

Body image

Cancer and cancer treatments can be really though on the body, and can for instance cause:

  • Weight gain or wieght loss
  • Swelling
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Hair loss
  • Skin problems
  • Scars from surgery

All bodies change during adolescence, but the changes brought on by serious illness is something very different from the normal changes associated with turning into an adult. Naturally, this can cause body image issues. It is also very common to feel bad about even acknowledging these issues. You have cancer, so you should just be happy to be alive, right? You have cancer, so why haven’t you turned into this deep and sage non-shallow person who does not care about superficial things and never sweats the small stuff?

It is absolutely 100% to care about appearances even when you have cancer. Adults definitely do it, and teens have a right to do it too.

If you are receiving counceling or attending a support group (both are a good idea), don’t be afraid to bring up body-image issues. Talking openly about it and acknowledging your feelings can help a lot.

This article was last updated on: November 18, 2019