- Cancer Information
- Schools and teachers
- Cancer in the school community
- When a family member has cancer
When a family member has cancer
When a student’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 student during this challenging time.
Learn more about:
- When a parent has cancer
- When a sibling has cancer
- When another family member has cancer
- How young people react
- Respecting a family’s privacy
- Changes in school performance
- How your school can help
- Helping classmates understand
- Talking about cancer
When a parent has cancer
Each year in Australia, more than 127,000 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. It is common for parents to have to make many difficult personal decisions, experience financial strain, feel overwhelmed or become more protective of their children.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Podcast: Family Dynamics and Cancer
Claire Tobin, Principal Medical Advisor, Department of Education and Training, VIC; Dr Antoinette Anazodo, Paediatric and Adolescent Oncologist, Sydney Children’s Hospital and Prince of Wales Hospital, Director of The Sydney Youth Cancer Service, and Conjoint Senior Researcher, University of New South Wales, NSW; Lisa Barrow, Clinical Nurse Educator, Children’s Cancer Centre, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, VIC; Margo Bulic, Psychosocial Support Worker, CanTeen, ACT; Amber Copeland, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland; Donna Drew, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Paediatric Oncology/Palliative Care, Kids Cancer Centre, Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick, NSW; Allesha Fecondo, Education Consultant, Victorian Paediatric Rehabilitation Service, and Education Liaison, Ronald McDonald Learning Program, Ronald McDonald House Charities Australia, VIC; John Friedsam, General Manager of Divisions, CanTeen Australia, NSW; Pina Hutcheson, President, Catholic Primary Principals’ Association of WA; Cara Irvine, Year 8 Coordinator, Alfred Deakin High School, ACT; Andrew Long, Assistant Director, Policy and Research, Independent Schools Council of Australia, ACT; Dr Alistair Lum, Post-doctoral Research Fellow – Behavioural Sciences Unit, Sydney Children’s Hospital, University of New South Wales, NSW; Kristine Luszczynski, Learning Program Manager, Quality and Standards, Ronald McDonald House Charities Australia, NSW; Anita Neville, National Manager, Ronald McDonald Learning Program, Ronald McDonald House Charities Australia, VIC; NSW Department of Education, NSW; Mandy Roney, Consumer; Shannon Rush, Primary School Program Manager, Camp Quality, SA; Luke Wade, Education and Career Support Consultant, Redkite, QLD.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Coping with cancer?
Speak to a health professional or to someone who has been there, or find a support group or forum
Looking for transport, accommodation or home help?
Practical advice and support during and after treatment