When a student is diagnosed

The news of a student’s diagnosis may come as a shock to many people in your school community. The school can play a key role in supporting the student, their family and other students at this time. It is important to maintain connections throughout the student’s treatment and to prepare for their return to school.

– Read more of Genevieve’s story

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Listen to podcasts on Explaining Cancer to Kids and  Family Dynamics and Cancer

Initial steps after a student's diagnosis

It is difficult for a family to receive the upsetting news of their child’s life-threatening illness. They often describe the days and weeks after diagnosis as a whirlwind. Family members not only have to come to grips with the diagnosis, but they also have to make decisions about their child’s treatment and inform their extended family network.

While the family is coming to terms with the diagnosis, they may not tell the school about it. Teachers or peers may notice a student’s absence or speculate about any changes in the student’s behaviour. Many families find that once the treatment has started and they have adjusted to the overwhelming situation, they feel more comfortable sharing information with the school.

Try to minimise rumours if you suspect (or have confirmed in confidence) that the student has cancer. Once the family has told you about the cancer diagnosis, you can take a number of steps to ensure the student is well supported by the school community.

Take the lead – Offer your support to the family. Explain that a school liaison person can be appointed so they only have to communicate with one person.

Ask who can be told – Establish if and how the family would like information about the student’s diagnosis and treatment to be shared with teachers and the rest of the school community. You might suggest confidentially informing a small team (e.g. the year adviser, principal, vice principal, school counsellor and class teacher), who will respect the family’s privacy while coordinating care and support for the student and any siblings at the school. It may also be helpful to develop a plan in case students learn about a classmate’s diagnosis from the student or from social media, and need support in managing their reaction.

Respect their wishes – Allow the family time to decide what role they would like the school to play. If they want to keep the diagnosis private, staff should comply with their decision (unless there are overriding health and safety issues). If at some stage you feel that it would be in the student’s interest to share the diagnosis, discuss your concerns with the family – you may want to contact the student wellbeing coordinator for advice on how to approach this conversation.

Arrange a meeting – Organise a meeting or conference call between the family and key staff such as the principal, the class teacher or year adviser, and the school counsellor. Consider meeting once per term to follow up on the student’s changing needs.

Work out the time frame – Consider how long the student may be away from school and how long their treatment may last. Some students with cancer are in and out of hospital for months, or even years. These students will need support throughout this time, which may involve a change of grade and teacher. Your school may be able to provide a form for the doctor to complete or ask for a letter from the doctor to explain prolonged absences or sporadic attendance. Many schools prepare an individual health care plan (or student health support plan) to outline how the school can support the student’s specific health care needs.

Get professional help – Offer to link the student and family with school counselling services. With a parent’s permission, staff from the hospital may be able to visit the school to discuss the student’s diagnosis and treatment with staff and classmates.

Contact Cancer Council – Call 13 11 20 for further information on cancer, treatment, and support services.

Legal obligations

Under the Australian Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Disability Standards for Education 2005, schools have responsibilities to support the ongoing education of students with cancer. They are obliged to:

  • consult so that they understand the student’s needs
  • make reasonable adjustments where necessary
  • implement strategies to prevent harassment and victimisation.

The Disability Standards for Education: A Practical Guide for Individuals, Families and Communities website provides general information about how schools can work with students and their families to support them.

Setting up a communication channel

Talking openly about the cancer diagnosis helps the school community adjust to the news, and understand what support the student needs. Ask the family what the student knows about the cancer and how the student has responded. Some families limit the information the child has about the cancer, especially if the child is young.

Schools have various ways of disseminating information to their community (e.g. newsletters, emails, websites, apps). Let the student and their family guide you about who in the school community needs to know and how much they can be told. The family, school staff members and the key liaison person can discuss the family’s wishes and school policies for sharing information.

Different families may need different communication styles. For example, some may want you, or one of your colleagues, to talk to their child’s classmates about cancer. Others may ask a clinical nurse consultant from the hospital to visit. Some may want the school to send a general letter to parents about cancer without mentioning the child’s name. The school’s parent association, such as the Parents and Citizens (P&C) or Parents and Friends (P&F), may be able to help the school communicate with families.

Be mindful of the student’s close friends, as they may be deeply affected by the news. It can be very reassuring for the student if their friends find ways to show their support.

– Sarah, mother of secondary student with cancer

This information was last reviewed in June 2018
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Support services

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

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Cancer information

When a student has treatment
Keeping in touch, supporting families and helping with schoolwork

When a student returns
Social concerns, practical changes, learning impacts and exam provisions

Support for classmates
Cancer lessons, awareness days and tips for classmates

Cancer in the School Community – Chapter 3
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