Helping young people understand cancer

Giving students factual information about cancer increases their understanding and reduces the risk of gossiping and bullying . Most students want to be supportive, but need the tools and knowledge to do so effectively.

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.

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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 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. Camp Quality offers a Primary School Education Program and CanTeen runs When Cancer Comes Along, an education program for students in years 9 and 10 about cancer and its impacts.

Books about cancer

For younger children

For older children and adolescents

  • Wait… Did you say ‘Cancer’? series, CanTeen, 2013,
  • The Fault in Our Stars (also a movie), John Green, Penguin Books, 2012
  • The Honest Truth, Dan Gemeinhart, Scholastic Press, 2015

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. Consider how best to inform all parents and students about 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 preschool or 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. It is a useful tool for introducing the topic of cancer in an age-appropriate way that provides the school community with a shared language for honest and open discussion.

If you are hoping to book a Camp Quality puppet show, plan well in advance. The puppets are very busy, but your State Coordinator will do their best to book you in as soon as possible. Camp Quality will provide you with a template letter so you can inform all parents of the planned visit.

Camp Quality also provides free resources that can be used in the classroom after the performance and may be useful when planning a lesson about cancer. For more details, call 1300 662 267 or visit their website.

Dealing with teasing and bullying

A school climate that promotes respectful relationships is likely to support student wellbeing and discourage inappropriate behaviour, such as teasing and bullying.

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 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 Student Wellbeing Hub.

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. If you’re caught off guard by a question, consider responding with “That’s a really good question, what makes you ask that?” This will give you some insight into why the person is asking the question.

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. See below for some ideas.

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.

Talking to a classmate with cancer

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

Try to talk 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.

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 look different – Their classmate may be self-conscious about any appearance changes caused by cancer treatment. They may want to talk about these changes or they may just want to fit back in. By following the lead of their classmate, students can work out whether it’s okay to talk about the changes.

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.

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

This information was last reviewed in June 2018
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Cancer in the School Community – Chapter 3
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