If a young person in your school has cancer

Children and teenagers with cancer may have to cope with a number of concerns or issues at school. For example, they may worry about changes to their relationships with classmates, or about possible physical limitations.

If possible, it is helpful for the person with cancer to have a member of school staff they can talk to, confide in, and get support from when they need it.

For children and young people affected by cancer, various issues can arise.

Relationships with classmates

Young people with cancer are often worried about how their friends and classmates will act towards them. If they have had a long time off school, or return with obvious physical changes such as hair loss, they might be scared of the reaction they will get. Friends can offer a lot of support to a person with cancer and most peers accept any changes. But they may have questions, so it's a good idea to prepare for these and to consider possible answers.

Some pupils may ask a teacher to talk about cancer with the class. This should only happen if the young person with cancer agrees to it. They should also know what their classmates have been told.

Giving classmates the facts about cancer will help them understand the situation. It will also give you the chance to address any misconceptions they may have, for example the myth that you can catch cancer. You can find out more about talking to your class about cancer in our teaching pack.

You can also request a representative from Macmillan to give a general talk about cancer types, cancer treatments and living with cancer.

People's reactions towards you change when they hear of your illness. I just want to be treated as the girl I used to be.

Lisa, a pupil with cancer

Physical appearance

Side effects of cancer treatments in young people can change the way they looks. Some common side effects are:

  • hair loss
  • facial swelling
  • weight loss or gain.

When the treatment has finished, these side effects will probably go away, but it may take time.

There are also possible long-term effects of treatment, such as:

  • stunted growth
  • problems with fertility or related organs
  • learning difficulties (if the brain or central nervous system are affected).

Some of these effects may not become apparent while the child is at school, but it’s important for the parent(s) or guardian(s), teacher(s), school nurse and doctor to be aware of these and to tell each other about any concerns, if appropriate.

We have more information about the possible side effects of cancer treatment.

Keeping up with school work

Children and young people receiving cancer treatment may have fatigue and drowsiness. They may tire easily and lose concentration. They may also have long periods of absence during and after their treatment. They should be encouraged and helped to keep up with school work as much as possible during these times. It may be possible for the child to attend school for half days when they first return, and they should be allowed to have time to rest if needed. Children and young people who have been treated for certain types of cancer, for example brain tumours, may need extra support in the classroom. It’s important to try to be flexible and to do what suits the child. This will make coming back to school easier.

Some teenagers being treated for cancer have said they feel teachers don’t want to push them as hard as other pupils. This can make them feel patronised or singled out. It can be difficult to find the right balance, but this is something to be aware of when considering the amount of work you are giving them.

Young people with cancer need to be aware of any possible short- or long-term limitations that might be caused by their treatment and how this can affect their academic progress.

If a child is not able to return to school after treatment, it may help them to have home tuition. The family’s doctor can usually make a request for this to the local education authority.

Physical limitations

Being unable to take part in sports or other physical activities may make young people feel upset and left out. They may have physical limitations because of side effects like fatigue. Certain drugs used to treat cancer can also cause the child or teenager to develop weak muscles or joints. If they need limb-sparing surgery, or if they need to have a limb amputated, it will affect their ability to take part in some activities. Young people with cancer often want to be treated normally, like their peers. But it is important for both the teacher and the young person with cancer to be aware of any physical limitations. The person’s medical team should give advice on this before they return to school.

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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.