- Cancer Information
- Schools and teachers
- Cancer in the school community
- When a family member has cancer
- How young people react
How young people react
Children and adolescents deal with the news that a 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. Younger children may feel that they are to blame for their family member getting cancer. Older students may also worry about whether the cancer runs in their family.
School involvement and support
A child or adolescent may not be able or willing to talk about how they feel, but might express these feelings through their behaviour. They may misbehave in the classroom, mirror their family member’s symptoms or side effects, or be distracted, sad, angry or withdrawn. Changes at home may make it difficult for the young person to keep up with their schoolwork and other commitments such as sports training or music tuition. For example, they may have to go straight to the hospital after school or they may have to take on extra household responsibilities.
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 and keep an eye out for changes in behaviour. A liaison person such as a year adviser or student wellbeing coordinator can help establish trust and confidentiality with the parents and student.
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.
Understanding potential challenges and milestones
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.
For more information on how people react to cancer, see Communicating with people of all ages.
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
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.
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