Medicine And The Media

Facing the future

BMJ 1995; 310 doi: (Published 17 June 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;310:1612
  1. Sarah Kelly

    Teenagers are expected to be undisciplined, moody, and rebellious. It is part of growing up and growing away from the restrictions of childhood. Most adolescents manage this period of transition successfully, emerging with grace into adulthood. How much more difficult it must be to manage the transformation while confronting a life threatening illness. In this Everyman documentary we were shown how some young people were coping with life, friendships, and a variety of serious diagnoses.

    The programme opened with Catherine, a 16 year old girl with cystic fibrosis. Catherine has friends her own age, and her “best mate” Jackie helps her make up her feed before leaving Catherine alone to plug it straight into her stomach. The implication was clear: best friends can understand a great deal but some things still need to be done in private. Despite her friend's support, Catherine was often filmed alone or visiting her grandmother.

    In contrast, a group of teenagers belonging to the support group HAWC (Help Adolescents with Cancer) were shown having fun on a weekend in Manchester. The support group was set up by Niki Winnard, who had a brain tumour diagnosed at the age of 13. It might have been tedious to watch the usual youthful activities, but the sight of young people watching television had an extra dimension; one of their friends in the holiday video they were viewing had died six months later. We also saw them at a disco and a football match. Each time someone was missing because of illness.

    The documentary clearly showed the honesty of these young people. They talked about losing their hair and losing their friends. “They just want you to go back to being the old Jo,” said one. Many found it difficult to keep up old friendships after having cancer diagnosed. Acquiring a serious illness suddenly seems to put more pressure on relationships than growing up with one. Catherine's friends had had time to grow used to her disease.

    None of the teenagers hid from death, and some found comfort in religion. Most talked of their experiences positively and acknowledged that in some way the illness had enriched their lives. All of them valued their friends, and it was to them they looked for support. They also knew how much stress their parents were under. One girl described how determined she was to recover because she couldn't bear the thought of her mother crying (again) at her funeral.

    The programme allowed the young people to talk naturally about themselves and because they were so relaxed the cameras didn't seem obtrusive. They taught me, firstly, that sick teenagers are still teenagers, and, secondly, that doctors play only a minor part in their lives. The medical profession was hardly mentioned.—SARAH KELLY, senior community medical officer in child health, Taunton and Somerset Hospital, Taunton

    Sick teenagers are still teenagers


    View Abstract

    Sign in

    Log in through your institution

    Free trial

    Register for a free trial to to receive unlimited access to all content on for 14 days.
    Sign up for a free trial