Support for classmates

When a student has cancer, most classmates want to offer their support, but need the tools and knowledge to do so effectively. It is important to respect the wishes of the student and their family regarding how much information to share with the class, but often educating other students about cancer can develop their understanding and promote an accepting, supportive school environment.

“Often people are most disturbed by what they don’t know. If people are brave enough to ask questions, I think there shouldn’t be fog and mirrors. No mystery.”

– Read more of Shirley’s story

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Cancer lessons, books and awareness days

Giving students factual information about cancer increases their understanding and reduces the risk of gossiping and bullying.

Before starting a discussion with your students, consider their age and maturity and anticipate any difficult questions they might ask. You might practise what you will say, or ask the family how they would like you to approach the class.

Planning a lesson about cancer

In some cases, a lesson or class discussion about cancer can help students understand their classmate’s condition. Depending on the content, this may support the curriculum for health and physical education and/or for science – check with your local education authority.

There are a number of books about cancer (see below) that you can share with your students. Staff from the student’s hospital school may be able to recommend other age-appropriate resources about cancer that you can use in class. With the permission of the student’s parents, you could also ask if a clinical nurse consultant or other member of the medical team can visit the school to talk to students and staff.

Books about cancer

For younger children

My Mum’s Got Cancer
Dr Lucy Blunt (author), Eloise Osborn (illustrator)
Jane Curry Publishing, 2009

Butterfly Kisses and Wishes on Wings
Ellen McVicker (author), Nanci Hersh (illustrator)
butterflykissesbook.com

Safina and the Hat Tree
Cynthia Hartman
Nomota, 2004, talesforkids.com.au

I’m a Kid Living with Cancer
Jenevieve Fisher (author), Casey Huie (illustrator)
Isaiah 11:6 Publishing, 2010

I Know Someone with Cancer series, 2014
bupa.co.uk/iknowsomeonewithcancer

For older children and adolescents

Medikidz Explain Cancer series (graphic novels)
medikidz.com

Allie McGregor’s True Colours
Sue Lawson
Black Dog Books, 2006

The Fault in Our Stars
John Green
Penguin Books, 2012

Hosting a cancer awareness and education day

While it is important to integrate information about cancer into the core curriculum, your school may also consider hosting a cancer awareness and education day. Many awareness days include a fundraiser, such as buying ribbons or coming to school out of uniform in exchange for a gold coin donation. However, your school does not have to collect funds.

Ask the person with cancer (or their family) if they are comfortable with the idea. While the information can be presented in a very general way, families may want to ensure certain details are kept private. You should also send a letter to all parents informing them of the upcoming event.

The cancer awareness and education day could involve brief in-class discussions or lessons from teachers. Younger students could draw pictures or write stories. Older students may want to hang posters, make presentations about cancer, or set up a stall to distribute information.

Arranging a puppet show

For a cancer awareness day in a primary school, you may want to arrange a visit from the Camp Quality Primary School Education Program. This free program explains cancer to children through an interactive puppet show that addresses the challenges of living with cancer and the importance of friendship. Camp Quality also provides free resources for teachers to use in class. Call 1300 662 267 or visit campquality.org.au.

If you are hoping to book a Camp Quality puppet show, plan well in advance. Up to two months’ notice may be required. It is also important to inform all parents of the planned visit.

Read more about cancer awareness activities

Guiding classmates

It is not uncommon for the classmates of a student with cancer to feel helpless and unsure about what to do or say when they are with the student. Sometimes students will look to teachers or their parents for guidance on how to act, but at other times you might simply notice that the students are feeling uncomfortable. There are various ways that you can help the students to become more at ease, including:

Listening – Be prepared to listen to students’ concerns.

Facilitating discussion – Encourage students to talk about what cancer is, its treatments and possible side effects. This will help prepare students for any physical or emotional changes in their classmate. 

Answering questions – Discussing the facts openly helps reduce anxieties and uncertainties. If you don’t know the answer, offer to find out. Remind students of their classmate’s right to privacy and the potential impact of sharing information on social media.

Being prepared – When a student has cancer, it’s a good bet most classmates are thinking, “Will they die?”, and a few will probably ask. Balancing the truth and family wishes can be a challenge. A gentle way to respond might be: “Cancer is a very serious illness and we are all worried about your classmate, but we know that the treatment team at the hospital is working hard to help them. If we learn of any developments, we will let the class know.”

Providing advice – Give students guidance on how to talk to a classmate with cancer. For some ideas, refer to the box below.

Encouraging emotional expression – Provide the opportunity for friends to debrief and express their feelings about cancer. For some students, activities such as painting, writing or composing music will help them work through their emotions.

Inviting an expert – You could ask a member of the student’s medical team, such as a clinical nurse consultant, to speak to the class (with the consent of all parents, including the parents of the student with cancer). This will help students gain a better understanding of what their classmate is experiencing.

Dealing with teasing and bullying

When a positive school climate of respectful relationships is maintained, inappropriate behaviour such as teasing and bullying is less likely to occur.

Schools are legally obliged to develop and implement strategies to prevent harassment and victimisation of students, including those with cancer. Schools also need to respond appropriately if an incident occurs. Consult your school’s anti- bullying or anti-harassment policy for general guidelines.

The best way to prevent bullying is to be as open as possible about a student’s cancer. Young people may have little understanding of what a student with cancer is going through and what treatment involves. This may make them feel frightened.

The more classmates know about cancer, the more likely they are to be supportive. Discuss the benefits of openness with the student and the family and make sure you have their permission to share information about the student’s situation.

It’s important to be aware that some students may feel resentful when a student with cancer returns to class. They may believe their peer is receiving undue special treatment. You can explain that the student needs extra support related to their health but still has to follow the same school rules as everyone else. Try to maintain a normal classroom atmosphere.

For general information on creating a supportive school culture, you can explore the resources at safeschoolshub.edu.au

Read more about guiding classmates and dealing with teasing

Talking to a classmate with cancer

Like some adults, students sometimes worry so much about saying the wrong thing that they start to avoid a classmate who has cancer. Teachers can help by discussing the following tips with their students:

Acknowledge the situation – Students can say: “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know I care”, “We missed you”, “It’s good to see you”, “How are you going?” or “Is there any way I can help in class?”

Understand that their classmate might act a little differently – Their classmate may be more tired or less social than before. Students can show their support by being patient and accepting that it may take time to adjust.

Try to talk normally about day-to-day things – Their classmate is probably tired of talking about cancer all the time. But the students also need to understand that their classmate might not be interested in trivial topics such as the latest celebrity gossip.

Take cues from their classmate with cancer – People who have had cancer react in different ways. By observing how their classmate behaves, students might work out how to respond.

Read more tips for talking to a classmate with cancer

This information was last reviewed in June 2015
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