Exercise helps teens cope with parent's cancer diagnosis

"My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks" by Marc Silver and his daughter Maya Silver.
"My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks" by Marc Silver and his daughter Maya Silver.

Adapted from the new book “My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks” ( by Washington Post Express columnist Marc Silver and his daughter Maya Silver.

Before soccer became a career for James Riley, a new addition to the D.C. United squad, the sport was his saving grace.

When he was a freshman player at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, Riley got a call from his mom.

“That was a shocking phone call,” he recalls. “It was probably the last time I cried that hard, hearing those words – ‘I have breast cancer’ – come out of her mouth.”

He considered dropping out of school to go home to Colorado Springs, Colo. But he stayed, and he played.

“Soccer was a place where I could get away,” he says. “Leave all your baggage outside the soccer field and step into the lines. You can have a break and be creative and enjoy the game and competing.”

Riley’s mom is in good health today. And her 30-year-old son reaches out to teens who are facing a parent’s cancer. “Do things you love,” he tells them.

And it turns out that he set a good example. Physical activity is a great way to deal with the stress, particularly for kids who aren’t into talking or writing about it.

Tyler Reeder, 17, of Glen Allen, Va., whose dad was diagnosed with cancer, found that football was – and still is – a release for any problem.

“I’m a quarterback. When I’m on the field, I don’t think of anything else,” Reeder says. “Football is my time of peace and serenity, and it always has been – especially when my dad was sick.”

“Being active is a great distraction,” says child psychiatrist Paula Rauch, who directs the Marjorie E. Korff PACT Program (Parenting at a Challenging Time) at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

“It often engages you with other people, and it often makes people feel much better. There’s good evidence that exercise helps people with their moods.”

It doesn’t have to be a competitive sport. Dancing works, too.

Psychiatrist James Gordon, founder and director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, headquartered in Washington, and author of “Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression,” prescribes:

“Put on hard-driving rhythmic music and shake your body. Shake for five minutes. Dance to music that really moves you. As you change your body’s stance by moving it, your emotions change along with it.”

That’s what helped Jaclyn Brown deal with her emotions when her mom was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer five years ago.

“I’ve loved to dance ever since I was an itty-bitty girl,” says Brown, who promoted breast cancer awareness as 2011-12 Miss Black Louisiana Teen U.S. “Our garage has really smooth floors. I’d put on my music and dance my heart out. It was a good reliever of all the questions, stress, emotions I had built up inside of me. I let it out. Nobody could see me in my little zone.”

And if it turns out that sports or exercise or dance helps teens cope with a serious medical situation in the family, then they’ve learned a lesson that will last for many years, experts say. When things get tough, they’ll know how not to get beaten down by stress.

One more tip: Parents may give suggestions, but that doesn’t mean they know best.

“Find a coping mechanism that works for you,” Rauch advises. “Not one that works for Mom and Dad.”