Preparing for a child with cancer returning to school

Going back to school can be a sign to everyone that a young person's life is getting back to normal. This can be a boost for the person with cancer and their classmates, but there are things you may like to consider before the child returns.

Communication is key

It is a good idea for the parent(s) or guardian(s) to talk to their child first about how they feel about returning to school, so they can understand their child’s fears or anxieties. It can help to think about the kinds of questions the child’s peers may have and to consider possible answers for them. Possible questions might be

  • ‘Are you going to die?’
  • ‘Can I catch cancer?’
  • ‘Can you still play?’

Medical information

The school should be given the basic information about the child’s illness and treatment. This includes:

  • possible physical and emotional side effects
  • any medication they need and when it should be taken
  • expected absences.

If the child has lost their hair due to treatment such as chemotherapy, they may want to wear a hat or bandana on their head. Allowances should be made for situations like this, and other teachers should be told.

The child’s parent(s) or guardian(s) should get a letter with all of this information from the child’s medical team. They can pass this on to the school. Or you can ask the child’s medical team to send a letter directly to the school. It may also be useful if a member from the child’s medical team acts as a point of contact with the school for information and advice.

Preparing classmates and peers

If the child and their parent(s) or guardian(s) agree to it, teachers may want to discuss the illness and treatment with other pupils before the child returns. Staff and classmates should be prepared for the physical changes the child may have had. These can include hair loss, weight gain or loss, and fatigue. Preparing classmates can help prevent the child being singled out or teased.

Classmates and peers may need reassurance when a child with cancer is returning to school. The child will probably want to be treated as they were before their treatment. It is important to encourage their classmates to treat them the same way as they did before. Macmillan’s Talking about cancer toolkit contains lesson plans and learning resources to help you talk confidently about cancer with your pupils. You could also ask one of the team at Macmillan to give a general talk about cancer.

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Open discussions about illnesses like cancer can help to give pupils the message that it's okay to talk about illness and loss.