When a family member has cancer

When a child’s parent, sibling or other important family member has cancer, the impact can be profound. School attendance and performance, social relationships and behaviour can all be affected. Teachers and other school staff play a key role in maintaining a sense of stability and normality for the child during this challenging time.

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Respecting a family's privacy

Schools encourage all families to let them know of changes at home that may affect a student’s schooling.

Although some families choose to tell the school about a cancer diagnosis, others may wish to keep it private. This is a personal decision and your school should respect their wishes. Parents are not obliged to share information unless it is having an impact on their child’s education.

If a family tells you about a cancer diagnosis, work with them to be an additional support during this time.


When a parent has cancer

Each year in Australia, more than 120,000 people are diagnosed with cancer. About one-third of these people are under 60 and many will have a child under age 18.

When a parent is told they have cancer, their first concern is often for their family. How will the children react? What should they be told? How will it affect their lives? Each parent answers these questions in their own way, depending on their individual circumstances. They may make many difficult personal decisions, experience financial strain, feel overwhelmed or become more protective of their children. These are all common reactions.

Children may experience a range of conflicting emotions when their parent has cancer, from sadness, fear and anxiety to anger, frustration and guilt. They may have to take on more responsibilities at home and cope with disrupted routines, changes in family dynamics and even increased conflict.

Without age-appropriate information, young people often realise their parent is ill but imagine a scenario that might be much worse than the reality. Information tailored to the age and individual needs of the child can reduce fears and help them cope with the challenges facing the family. If the family would like help finding appropriate and reliable information, you can suggest they contact Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Read more about how children react to a parent's diagnosis

When a sibling has cancer

Young people with a brother or sister who has cancer can experience huge disruptions in their life. The parental attention at home is suddenly shifted, daily routines are disrupted, and family roles and responsibilities change.

Healthy siblings have the highest unmet needs in families affected by childhood cancer. They may feel great sadness, fear and anxiety, as well as more complicated emotions such as guilt, jealousy, resentment and anger. Because so much focus is on their brother or sister, they may feel that their needs do not deserve to be met and that they have no right to complain. They may also feel embarrassed about their family now being different to other families.

If the child with cancer attends the same school, the sibling may be asked questions about their brother or sister’s diagnosis that they find distressing or don’t have the answers to. If the family agrees, it may be appropriate to include teachers and students from the sibling’s class in any talks about cancer given to the sick student’s class. It would also be supportive to nominate a trusted staff member as the sibling’s ‘go to’ person, someone they can talk to about their worries or frustrations.

“I’m really proud of all four of my children. Despite all the hardship, there has been a lot of growth for them. Leo’s siblings pulled him through, and we pulled through together as a family.”

– Read more of Genevieve’s story 

Despite the many challenges of having a brother or sister with cancer, some siblings are enriched by the experience. They grow in compassion and empathy towards others and find their own inner reliance and strength.

Read more about siblings

When another family member has cancer

Children can be greatly affected by the cancer diagnosis of family members such as grandparents, as well as of any other key figures in their life, including guardians and close family friends. They are likely to feel worried and sad about the person’s illness.

If the child’s parents are closely involved with the person who has cancer, life at home might be disrupted and the child may feel like they are receiving less attention.


How young people react

Children and adolescents deal with the news that their family member has cancer in different ways. How they express their feelings will depend on their age and maturity, their coping style, their relationship with the family member, and their understanding of cancer.

When any close family member has cancer, the child may feel sadness and concern for them but also react to the change in family dynamics and grieve the loss of parental attention. This can be over seemingly simple things, such as the parent not going to watch them play sport or attending school events. Older students may also worry about whether the cancer runs in their family.

A child or adolescent may not be able or willing to talk about how they feel, but might express these feelings through behaviour. They may misbehave in the classroom, mirror their family member’s symptoms or side effects, and be distracted, sad, angry or withdrawn. Read more about typical signs of distress at different ages

Some students may not fully appreciate that their family member is seriously ill until the symptoms worsen or the treatment changes their appearance. Because of this, any effects on their school performance or behaviour may be delayed.

Telling the school

Because children spend so much time at school, parents usually choose to tell select members of the school community about the diagnosis. This allows school staff to create a positive school environment for the student. A liaison person such as a year adviser or student wellbeing coordinator can help establish trust and confidentiality with the parents and student.

“You know the ‘look’ you get when people feel sorry for you – when I’m at school, I just want to think about school stuff and my friends, not cancer.”

– Josh, secondary student whose parent has cancer

If you are aware that a student’s family member is ill, try to maintain the school routine. Just like a young person with cancer, the student may view school as a safe, comfortable place. They may enjoy feeling normal, or even take pleasure in receiving attention from teachers or classmates.

Some young people ask their parents not to tell the school about the family member’s cancer. They might not want their classmates or teachers to perceive them differently.

Keep in mind that some children whose family member has cancer seem able to cope, but there may be times when it gets too much. Key milestones in their family member’s testing or treatment can be especially difficult and may lead to anxiety or changes in behaviour. Even when the active treatment has finished, there may still be blood tests every three or six months and the student may continue to feel distress about the possibility of the cancer coming back.

Read more about typical reactions and telling the school

Changes in school performance

When a family member has cancer, the child will probably be preoccupied with what is going on at home. Studying and completing homework may not always be their main priority. Likewise, it may be difficult for them to keep up with their other commitments such as sports training, and they may have limited time to socialise.

“When his little brother was having treatment, Alastair would have to study for exams in the hospital cafeteria. He said he felt like he was drifting in and out of worlds.”

– Read more of Genevieve’s story

Away from school, a young person may be acting as a carer, visiting the hospital in the evenings, looking after younger siblings and taking on extra household duties. In single-parent families, the situation can become even more demanding for the student.

You, or a school liaison person, should anticipate changes in the student’s academic performance and talk to the student’s family about adjusting their expectations. While many families will hope their child can keep up with their schoolwork, it is important to identify changes in school performance and respond appropriately, such as by offering flexible due dates or tutoring.

If students whose family members have cancer are sitting NAPLAN or senior exams, they may qualify for special consideration.

Read more about school performance

How your school can help

There are many ways your school can assist students after a family member’s cancer diagnosis. With the family’s consent, you might:

Keep track – Appoint the student wellbeing coordinator or year adviser to provide regular contact with the student, monitor their behaviour, and help keep track of assignments and school events. Offer the student the option of seeing the school counsellor. Special consideration may be needed for examinations and assessments. The student may also need flexibility with their attendance of compulsory sports training or music rehearsals.

Notice changes – Ask the teacher to look out for changes in the child’s behaviour, social interactions and academic performance, and keep the family updated.

Connect – Put the family in touch with another family in the school community who has experienced cancer and is willing to be contacted.

Organise a parent team – A group of parent volunteers can be organised privately or by the school’s parent association, such as the Parents & Citizens (P&C) or Parents & Friends (P&F). These parents can help the family stay on top of excursions, homework, school events and after-school activities. They may also want to help by giving the student lifts to and from school and after-school activities (such as sports training), providing child care or meals. Another way to help is to arrange video recordings of school events so that the family can share them at home.

Educate – Arrange for a clinical nurse consultant from the hospital to visit and conduct an education session about the treatment.

Contact Camp Quality – Camp Quality supports children living with cancer and their families, and children who have a parent with cancer. They offer a free educational puppet show for schools across Australia. Their Kids Guide to Cancer app answers common questions and is particularly aimed at children aged 8–13 who have a parent, sibling or friend with cancer. Camp Quality also organises recreation programs, camps and family experiences to support siblings of children living with cancer. To find out more, visit campquality.org.au or call 1300 662 267.

Get in touch with CanTeen – CanTeen is an organisation for young people aged 12–24 who are affected by cancer, including siblings and offspring. It offers counselling in person or by phone, email or instant messaging, and can collaborate with school wellbeing staff. CanTeen also runs camps, recreation days, seminars and workshops, and produces resources for young people. See canteen.org.au or call 1800 226 833.

Contact Young Carers – Help the student connect with Young Carers, an organisation that supports young people who care for someone in their family with an illness or other problems. Visit youngcarers.net.au

Visit My Parent’s Cancer – If the family member has breast cancer, suggest that the student look at Cancer Australia’s website for 13–19 year olds whose parent, grandparent or other close adult has breast cancer. It has stories and offers reliable, practical help. Visit myparentscancer.com.au

Link with Kids Helpline – Put students in touch with the Kids Helpline. This is a telephone, web and email counselling service with a fun, interactive website for kids, teens and young adults aged 5–25. It offers confidential counselling for anything worrying a child or young adult. Contact them on 1800 55 1800 or visit kidshelp.com.au

Read more tips for supporting the student

Helping classmates understand

Parents may be concerned about the reactions of their child’s classmates to the situation. Awareness raising and education about cancer can help encourage a supportive environment, but it’s important to discuss this first with the student and their family.

It’s also a good idea to include the student in discussions about how to share the news about their family member’s diagnosis. Young people can be particularly self-conscious and sensitive to others’ reactions. Talking about the situation with their classmates can increase understanding and acceptance, and may make life easier for the affected student. Be mindful, however, that some affected students will prefer to deal with their family situation privately and their wishes should be respected.

Ways to create a supportive school environment include:

  • integrating information about cancer into the curriculum
  • maintaining a positive school culture of respectful relationships where bullying or cruel comments (either in person or online) are less likely to occur
  • planning cancer awareness activities or events to teach students more about cancer
  • holding a cancer fundraising event, if the family agrees

Cancer fundraising events

When a member of your school community is confronted by cancer, people usually ask: “How can we help?” While the primary role of schools is to educate students, some schools allow students and staff to organise fundraising programs. These can be stand- alone events or may be combined with other awareness-raising activities.

A family member’s cancer often leads to considerable financial strain because income is lost and treatment-related expenses mount. However, it is important to check with the family before any fundraising event is planned, as they may not be comfortable with the idea and their wishes should always be respected.

Your school community may choose to donate any funds raised directly to the family. Alternatively, you and the family might decide to support cancer charities. Cancer Council coordinates a number of events that can work well in the school setting.

Cancer fundraising events not only collect money to help people with cancer. They can also empower school community members, help educate others and spread a message of support and hope.

Read more about a supportive environment and fundraising events

Talking about cancer with the affected student

Children and adolescents will vary in how comfortable they feel talking about cancer. A young person may want to keep school as a place where they don’t have to constantly think about their family member’s cancer. You should never force a student to discuss the disease.

“One friend would ask how I was going but I’d snap at her because I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to think about it, I didn’t want to know about it.”

– Read more of Emma’s story 

If a student whose parent or sibling has cancer would like to talk about their situation, you may want to involve members of your school’s student wellbeing team, learning and support team or the school counsellor. If the student shows signs of prolonged distress, such as marked changes in their behaviour, they should be referred to professional counselling support. This can be arranged by the school counsellor.

When talking to a student about their family member’s cancer, you will naturally tailor your conversation according to their age and responses. It is also worth keeping in mind a few general pointers:

  • Use words they can understand.
  • Find out what they already know.
  • Be honest.
  • Offer a listening ear.
  • Don’t make promises you cannot keep.
  • Show your own emotions.

For more information, see Cancer Council’s book Talking to Kids About Cancer. This may help you with strategies for discussing cancer in a school setting. You can also pass it on to parents if they are interested. 

Printed copies are available for free - Call 13 11 20 to order

Instructions for downloading and reading EPUB files

Apple devices

The iBooks application must be installed on your Apple device before you can read the EPUB.
Different ways to download an EPUB file to your Apple device:

  • email EPUB files to yourself and transfer the attachment to iBooks.
  • copy EPUB files into DropBox (or a similar service) and use the DropBox app to send them to iBooks.
  • open EPUB files directly from Mobile Safari and open them in iBooks, where they are saved automatically by downloading the EPUB from the website.

Need more help? Visit: http://support.apple.com/kb/HT4059

Kobo

To download an EPUB file to your Kobo from a Windows computer:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • select “Open folder to view files” to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

To download an EPUB to your Kobo from a Mac:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • open your “Finder” application.
  • select “Kobo eReader” from the listed devices to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, probably in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

Turn on your Kobo and your EPUB will be located in “eBooks”, while a PDF will be located in “Documents”.
Need more information? Visit: http://www.kobo.com/help/koboaura/response/?id=3784&type=3

Sony Reader

To download an EPUB file on your Sony Reader™:

  • ensure you have already installed the Reader™ Library for PC/Mac software
  • select the eBook you want from our website and click the link to download it.
  • connect the Reader™ to your computer.
  • open the Reader™ Library software and click “Library” in the left-hand pane and select the eBook to view it.

Need more help? Visit: https://au.readerstore.sony.com/apps_and_devices/

Amazon Kindle 2nd Generation devices

EPUB files can’t be read on the Amazon Kindle™. However, like most eReaders, Kindle™ 2nd Generation devices are able to display PDFs. We recommend that you download the PDF version of this booklet if you would like to read it on a Kindle™.
To transfer a PDF to your Kindle™ via USB cable from your computer or Mac:

  • download the PDF directly onto your computer.
  • connect the USB cable to your computer’s USB port, and the micro USB end of the cable to your Kindle™. Note: the Kindle™ won’t be available as a reading device while it is connected to your computer until it has been disconnected.
  • open the Kindle™ drive and several folders will appear inside. The “Documents” folder is where you will need to copy or drag the PDF to.
  • safely eject your Kindle™ from your computer and unplug the USB cable. Your content will appear on the Home Screen.

Kindle also provides a Kindle Personal Documents Service that allows users to send documents as an attachment directly to your eReader. For more information on this service, visit http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/ref=help_search_1-1?ie=UTF8&nodeId=200767340&qid=1395967989&sr=1-1
For more information on accessing a PDF on your Kindle™, visit www.amazon.com/manageyourkindle, log in to your account and click on Personal Document Settings.
Need more help? Visit https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=200375630

Android and PC

You can also download and open eBooks on Android devices and PCs with appropriate apps or software installed. Suitable eReader apps for Android include Google Play Books, FBReader and Moon+ Reader. Suitable software for PCs include Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions.

Read more about these conversations

Instructions for downloading and reading EPUB files

Apple devices

The iBooks application must be installed on your Apple device before you can read the EPUB.
Different ways to download an EPUB file to your Apple device:

  • email EPUB files to yourself and transfer the attachment to iBooks.
  • copy EPUB files into DropBox (or a similar service) and use the DropBox app to send them to iBooks.
  • open EPUB files directly from Mobile Safari and open them in iBooks, where they are saved automatically by downloading the EPUB from the website.

Need more help? Visit: http://support.apple.com/kb/HT4059

Kobo

To download an EPUB file to your Kobo from a Windows computer:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • select “Open folder to view files” to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

To download an EPUB to your Kobo from a Mac:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • open your “Finder” application.
  • select “Kobo eReader” from the listed devices to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, probably in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

Turn on your Kobo and your EPUB will be located in “eBooks”, while a PDF will be located in “Documents”.
Need more information? Visit: http://www.kobo.com/help/koboaura/response/?id=3784&type=3

Sony Reader

To download an EPUB file on your Sony Reader™:

  • ensure you have already installed the Reader™ Library for PC/Mac software
  • select the eBook you want from our website and click the link to download it.
  • connect the Reader™ to your computer.
  • open the Reader™ Library software and click “Library” in the left-hand pane and select the eBook to view it.

Need more help? Visit: https://au.readerstore.sony.com/apps_and_devices/

Amazon Kindle 2nd Generation devices

EPUB files can’t be read on the Amazon Kindle™. However, like most eReaders, Kindle™ 2nd Generation devices are able to display PDFs. We recommend that you download the PDF version of this booklet if you would like to read it on a Kindle™.
To transfer a PDF to your Kindle™ via USB cable from your computer or Mac:

  • download the PDF directly onto your computer.
  • connect the USB cable to your computer’s USB port, and the micro USB end of the cable to your Kindle™. Note: the Kindle™ won’t be available as a reading device while it is connected to your computer until it has been disconnected.
  • open the Kindle™ drive and several folders will appear inside. The “Documents” folder is where you will need to copy or drag the PDF to.
  • safely eject your Kindle™ from your computer and unplug the USB cable. Your content will appear on the Home Screen.

Kindle also provides a Kindle Personal Documents Service that allows users to send documents as an attachment directly to your eReader. For more information on this service, visit http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/ref=help_search_1-1?ie=UTF8&nodeId=200767340&qid=1395967989&sr=1-1
For more information on accessing a PDF on your Kindle™, visit www.amazon.com/manageyourkindle, log in to your account and click on Personal Document Settings.
Need more help? Visit https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=200375630

Android and PC

You can also download and open eBooks on Android devices and PCs with appropriate apps or software installed. Suitable eReader apps for Android include Google Play Books, FBReader and Moon+ Reader. Suitable software for PCs include Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions.


This information was last reviewed in June 2015
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Coping with cancer?
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Work and cancer
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Cancer information

Dealing with the diagnosis
Common reactions to a cancer diagnosis and how to find hope

Talking about the diagnosis to children
When, where and what to tell kids, with examples 

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