- Cancer Information
- Schools and teachers
- Cancer in the school community
- When a staff member has cancer
When a staff member has cancer
If a staff member in your school has been diagnosed with cancer, it can affect every aspect of their life, including their employment. The staff member may have to take extended leave from work, and could need support from the school community during and after treatment.
Learn more about:
- How cancer affects the staff member
- Choosing to tell parents and students
- How people may react
- Keeping in touch with the teacher
- How parents can help
- Cancer in the workplace
- Dealing with side effects
- The role of the principal
How cancer affects the staff member
Work is an important part of life for most people – besides income, working at school may provide satisfaction, enjoyable challenges, and a chance to mix with people from different age groups and backgrounds.
When one of your colleagues is diagnosed with cancer, they have to make many decisions:
|Who to tell||Some people may decide they want to keep their diagnosis private. Their wishes should be respected (see Respecting privacy). Others are happy for students and parents to know, or they may wish to tell only a few people such as the principal, a staff support officer or colleagues they are close to. You cannot share information about a colleague’s health without their consent.|
|How to say it||A person with cancer may choose to make a personal announcement, but they might prefer to use another method, such as writing an email or asking the principal to tell colleagues.|
|Plan of action||While some people may continue working, others may take time off or retire. Flexible working arrangements, such as altered work hours or location, can sometimes help staff to accommodate the side effects of cancer treatment.|
Many school staff are also parents, and this adds to their stress when they have cancer. They will probably be preoccupied with managing changes at home and may need particular understanding from their workplace.
Some of my colleagues were so uncomfortable they didn’t even talk about it. I don’t think they had a lack of concern, I just think they had no idea what to say.– Read more of Shirley’s story
Help with making decisions
If your colleague has been diagnosed with cancer, they may feel overwhelmed and ask for help with the many decisions they must make. You can remind them of any professional counselling services, such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), that are available to staff through the school.
Your colleague can also call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or visit Cancer, work and you for more information.
Choosing to tell parents and students
Although a staff member is not obligated to tell parents and students about their diagnosis, they may choose to share some information. This can be particularly helpful in smaller communities, where the staff member may be confronted with questions about their absence if they run into students and parents at the shops or other local places.
The staff member could discuss how to tell the school community with appropriate colleagues, such as the school principal, counsellor, student wellbeing team and/or staff wellbeing officer.
Most parents will appreciate a straightforward approach. Parents can be contacted by letter, email or phone; a parent group such as the P&C or P&F could be asked to relay the news; or parents can be invited to a meeting.
It’s a good idea to let the parents know if the teacher plans to be away and for how long. The principal can also explain how the school plans to manage the teacher’s work.
Telling students requires a sensitive approach. Remember, students come from all types of backgrounds, so some of them may not know much about cancer and others may have a personal experience with it. A young person’s age and maturity also affect their level of understanding.
Plan what to say to students in advance and prepare answers to any likely questions. It is wise to send a letter or email home to parents so they know that their children might want to talk about their teacher’s cancer. Any letter should include contact details for appropriate support services and resources.
How people may react
When people in your school community learn about a colleague’s cancer, there will be a variety of reactions. Many people wish to be supportive but are unsure what to say or do. Some people will ask questions or be extremely helpful; others will pretend they don’t know or will go out of their way to avoid the person with cancer.
On rare occasions, there may be parents who will make it clear they don’t want their child in the class of a teacher who has cancer because they believe their child’s schooling will be disrupted. In this case, the principal can explain how the school plans to maintain the student’s schedules.
If any member of your school community reacts in an insensitive manner to the news of the diagnosis, or how the school plans to manage the absence, speak to the principal or staff wellbeing officer.
The principal can assist students and parents who want to find out more about cancer or would like to access counselling services. See Further support for a list of reliable organisations and websites.
Keeping in touch with the teacher
Students may like to:
- prepare get well cards
- draw pictures
- write a story
- send a letter or email describing what they’ve been doing in class
- make a video of get well messages from students
- start a blog to keep the teacher up to date with news from the classroom.
How parents can help
If parents are aware of your colleague’s cancer, they might offer to help in various ways. The school could appoint a contact person to manage these offers. The contact person can check what sort of help, if any, the colleague would like from parents and then coordinate the support.
Depending on school policy, a parent’s assistance in the classroom may be helpful at this time. The principal can clarify whether this is allowed and what clearances (e.g. Working with Children Check) are needed, and the teacher can decide if it would be welcome.
Many teachers have their own personal support network outside the school community and may prefer to keep their professional and personal lives separate. However, others gratefully accept offers such as a meal roster or help with their own children.
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.
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