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Bullying and Cancer Patients

Bullying is often a trending news item, but what most people don’t hear about is the bullying that some people experience while also battling cancer. Also heard less often are stories about adults as victims of bullying. Childhood bullying is probably more common, but adult bullying does happen and can have similarly devastating consequences.

Living with and fighting cancer is difficult. Patients living with mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other types of this terrible illness should not have to also deal with being bullied, but it does happen. The consequences may include physical harm, emotional damage, depression and anxiety, and others. Bullying can be prevented and eliminated, whether the victim is an adult or child with cancer, by having loved ones who are aware and caring who are willing to see the signs and make sure the behavior stops.

cancer and bullying

What is Bullying?

Bullying is any kind of aggressive and threatening behavior that is directed at a specific individual and that goes on repeatedly for an extended period of time. Bullying behavior may be physical, but it can also be verbal threats and aggression, emotional abuse, social bullying, or online threats and harassment, called cyberbullying.

When adults are bullied by other adults it may be called other names, like harassment or abuse. But bullying by and to adults is essentially the same as what children may experience as bullying victims: targeted, repeated threats and aggression. Adults are bullied more often than most people realize. A survey of thousands of American adults found that nearly one-third of respondents had experienced bullying in their adult lives.

Adult Bullying and Cancer Patients

Adult bullying is an issue that has not been addressed as widely as bullying between children. However, there are many similarities. For instance, bullies of all ages tend to target victims who they perceive as different or too vulnerable or weak to resist or fight back. For these reasons, cancer patients can potentially be victims of adult bullying. The bully may be someone at work, a cancer caregiver, or even a staff member at a medical or treatment center.

Sometimes bullying behaviors may not seem as obvious between adults as children. Some examples of how an adult with cancer might be bullied include being given unreasonable demands at work, being socially isolated by coworkers, or someone making intimidating or offensive comments to a cancer patient regarding their illness, appearance, or treatments.

Bullying and Children with Cancer

Children with cancer fall into a category of vulnerable young people who may be targeted by bullies at school, online, or in other social settings. Some studies have looked at this specifically and found that children with cancer experience school bullying at greater rates—up to three times more—than their healthy peers.

A battle with cancer can leave a child looking different; they may lose their hair or gain or lose weight, for instance. A child battling cancer may also miss a lot of school or be given what are perceived by other children as special privileges at school. Any of these and other changes or struggles can make a child vulnerable as a target of bullies. The consequences are similar as those for healthy bullied children, including academic problems and physical harm.

Bethany Thompson – A Tragic Story of Cancer, Bullying, and Suicide

There are far too many news stories about children committing suicide after enduring relentless bullying, often at school or online. One of these stories involved a young girl who battled cancer, endured bullying, and then committed suicide. Bethany Thompson was just eleven, a cancer survivor, when she took her own life in 2016.

She had beat brain cancer, but complications left her with a crooked smile. This difference in her appearance was something that bullies honed in on when she returned to school as a healthy young girl. The bullying went on for years. One day on the bus ride home from school Bethany told her friend that she couldn’t take it anymore and would kill herself. The friend’s parents called Bethany’s mother, but it was too late.

Just the day before she took her life, Bethany’s principle had told her mother that he would begin investigating the claims of bullying. Unfortunately for the eleven year old, it was too little too late. The school district claimed to have been taking steps to reduce bullying, but it was also known that administrators knew about Bethany’s struggles for at least a year and failed to protect her. Bethany was targeted because her cancer left her looking different. She suffered the unthinkable, childhood cancer, but won that battle. Being bullied by peers was one battle she couldn’t overcome.

What Patients and Parents Can Do to Combat Bullying

For children with cancer, it is important for parents to be advocates, to be aware, and to take steps needed to stop any bullying before it causes harm. Children will not always speak up, so parents and other adults need to look out for signs of bullying, including changes in the child’s behavior, depressed moods, anxiety or fear around a particular person, online evidence of bullying, or physical signs like bruises.

Parents should also be willing to engage school teachers and administrators and to insist that steps be taken to stop bullying. If you are the parent of a bullied child, it is also important to talk to your child about it and encourage him or her to open up and tell you about what happens. If your school is not willing or able to stop bullying, find out if there are any state anti-bullying laws on your side that can help you take action.

Adults need to stand up for themselves in the face of cancer bullying, but it isn’t always easy. At work, you can go to the human resources department or a boss who can help you deal with the situation. If the bullying is occurring at a treatment or medical center, talk to your doctor about what is happening. People who target and bully cancer patients must be held accountable by those who are in positions of authority.

Bullying is scary, upsetting, and damaging. For adults or children already facing the battle against cancer, going through bullying is another burden to bear. Whether you are an adult being bullied for having cancer or you have a child going through this, taking action is essential. Whatever you can do to stop the action, make the bully be held accountable, and recover from the harm it is causing is essential so that you or your child can continue to fight cancer without the added pressure of being a victim.

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