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Returning to school after a cancer diagnosis

Returning to school after a cancer diagnosis | Texas Children's Hospital
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When a child returns to school after a cancer diagnosis, adjustment can be challenging for both the family and school alike. Children with cancer may experience many disruptions in their school attendance due to frequent hospitalizations, side effects of treatment and overall fatigue. Figuring out a plan with the school will be an important part of the child’s recovery.

School is the defining structure in a child’s day-to-day life. Going back to school signals a return to normalcy for children with cancer and sets expectations for their future. The issues that come with returning to school are often unique to each child, but most can be managed successfully through proper communication and planning.

When caregivers are dealing with a cancer diagnosis, communicating with the school is not always top of mind. Keeping the school looped in on the child’s medical situation lays groundwork for months or even years of communication and collaboration to come. It’s helpful for caregivers to form a strong working relationship with school professionals to ensure the child continues to feel welcomed, nurtured and challenged at school.

Once a child is diagnosed with cancer, it’s key to notify the school in writing as soon as possible. Next, identify an advocate (i.e. social worker, child life specialist) at the hospital or treatment facility who can communicate important health information, provide letters of absence and explain various educational resources available to both the family and school. When the child is in the hospital, maintaining contact with the child’s teacher will help keep everyone informed as updates develop.

If the child is able, keeping up with schoolwork is also critical during this time. Learning and application can continue even if the child isn’t able to attend school. In most cases, teachers are willing to email assignments and homework, or to send materials home with a sibling or another student.

The child’s teacher can speak with the class about particular medical situations and advise them on how to best support their fellow classmate. There are many great resources out there for explaining cancer to a variety of audiences and accommodating children with cancer, including:

  • Monkey in My Chair
    • This is a program for preschool- and elementary-age children who are away from school due to cancer. Each affected child is provided with a monkey kit, which includes a stuffed monkey to physically take their place at school. This kit also comes with an education guide for the teacher.
  • Hopecam
    • Hopecam provides the affected child with a tablet computer, equipped with a webcam and high-speed internet access, to interact with their classmates and participate in classroom activities.

If the child has siblings in school, consider informing their teachers about the cancer diagnosis, too. Cancer affects the whole family, and many siblings will bottle up their feelings to avoid adding stress to the family unit. Child life specialists can often assist siblings in working through these adjustments in school and at home.

There are many ways to help with a child’s return to school after a cancer diagnosis, especially if you’re the teacher or simply connected to the school community. Educate other school personnel about the child’s medical needs, especially if a communicable disease plan is in place for cases of the common cold, flu, strep throat, chicken pox, etc. Modify the classroom environment to fit the child’s needs, and be their advocate when it’s appropriate. Also, consider creating a learning plan (i.e. IEP, IDEA) to ensure educational needs are met. You can also encourage the facilitation of social support through greeting cards, emails, text messages or FaceTime/Skype calls, or help the child’s family set up a web page to raise funds or keep loved ones updated (i.e. CaringBridge, MyLifeLine).


School Support – CureSearch

School Support – Children’s Oncology Group

Michelle Fritsch, LMSW-ACP