When a student has treatment

School represents normal life to most students. Going to school is more than just education – it establishes a routine and provides an opportunity to socialise. A diagnosis of cancer is a major disruption for the student and leads to frequent absences from school.

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Keeping in touch

Every situation is different. Not all families will want to maintain close contact with the school community, and a young child may not be able to respond to messages, depending on their age and symptoms. However, many students receiving treatment for cancer do want to maintain contact with classmates. Young people with cancer find it easier to return to school if friendships have been maintained throughout their absence. Regular communication can provide reassurance that they’ve not been forgotten by their friends and help to keep them engaged with their education.

The school community can keep in touch with a student in the hospital or at home by using technology such as Skype, email and the school intranet. Educational social networking portals such as Edmodo can allow you to communicate with the student and the hospital school about their schoolwork. Videoconferencing tools (such as Skype, WebEx, Google Hangouts or Adobe Connect) can also allow the student to participate in classroom lessons.

– Read more of Jeremy’s story 

How to maintain contact

  • Send postcards, letters, drawings or paintings.
  • Make an audio or video recording of a school event, or of personal messages.
  • Post a package of photos or small gifts.
  • Email notes or photos.
  • Consider age-appropriate programs such as Monkey in My Chair.
  • Create a website or blog about what is happening at school.
  • Use social networking or videoconferencing such as Skype, FaceTime or Google Drive.
  • Organise visits to the hospital by classmates, if approved by the student’s parents. The student may have reduced immunity, so reschedule the visit if anyone has a cold, cough or other viral or infectious illness.

Supporting families

When a child or adolescent is diagnosed with cancer, the family may experience emotional and financial strain, which can cause anxiety. One parent may have to take time off work so they can be with the child in hospital, while siblings are often left with just one parent at home. The changing family dynamics and stress can lead to relationship issues. In single-parent or separated families, the pressures can be even greater.

Families in regional schools face extra complications. The major centres for cancer treatment are usually in large cities, away from the family’s main support network. Often the student must travel great distances and stay away from home and school for long periods. One parent usually has to travel with the child, while the other parent stays home for work and to care for siblings.

School staff can link the family to school counselling services and offer support to any siblings who also attend the school (see pages 44–45). If your school has fees, the principal could consider how these can be adjusted to ease the family’s financial burden. Fellow school parents often play a key role in coordinating support when a child has cancer, particularly if there isn’t any extended family to help. With the family’s permission, they may organise a roster for meals, childminding or transport (such as taking siblings to school, sport or other activities), or set up a fundraising website. A group of parents may organise this help among themselves, or it could be coordinated by the school’s parent association, such as the P&C or P&F.

Helping with schoolwork

It is natural for a parent to feel anxious about how the student is going to keep up with their schoolwork. Students may also worry about falling behind, particularly if that might mean being separated from their peer group when they do return to school. Talk to the student and the parents about their expectations, and how you can help maintain some form of ongoing learning. An Individual Education Plan (or Individual Learning Plan) can provide some direction and guidance to ensure the student doesn’t fall behind.

– Read more of Jeremy’s story 

Any school-aged student who has an extended hospital stay will be enrolled in a hospital school or hospital education service that caters for all school aged students. A hospital school aims to provide continuity of education to make the return to school as easy as possible and to boost a young person’s spirits and self-esteem. To do this, the hospital school may contact the student’s regular school to discuss the educational program. This helps ensure that the learning taking place in hospital is aligned with their regular schoolwork. Students attend a classroom or, if necessary, are visited on their ward by a teacher. Some hospitals may provide other services to assist with learning needs, such as play, music or art therapy.

More children and adolescents are now receiving treatment as outpatients. This can make it difficult for them to visit the hospital school, but they may not be well enough to attend their regular school. If you know the student is spending long periods of time at home, liaise with the family and the hospital school to ensure they have educational support and peer contact. The class teacher can also work with the student and family to set up a work program they can complete at home, including opportunities for the student to connect with their class. If the student transitions to high school or another new school, staff may share information about the student’s learning needs so that the appropriate plans can be put in place.

Education support programs


Redkite is a national charity that supports children and young people with cancer, and the people who care for them. They offer:

  • financial assistance to help young people aged up to 24 years achieve their work and study goals, and to help young people whose education has been disrupted by a sibling’s cancer treatment
  • coaching assistance to help 15–24 year olds diagnosed with cancer at any age get back on track with work, study or training
  • free information, support and counselling, for young people diagnosed with cancer, their families and support networks. This includes teachers and other education staff who would like advice on supporting a student.

You can help by making parents aware of Redkite’s support services or by referring a student yourself. For more details, call 1800 REDKITE (1800 733 548), email support@redkite.org.au or visit Redkite.

Ronald McDonald Learning Program

Provided by Ronald McDonald House Charities Australia, the Learning Program helps seriously ill children and adolescents, as well as the parents and professionals who support them. The program includes various services:

  • individual tuition helps students catch up on their missed schooling
  • Education Liaison Coordinators support the ongoing education of students at all children’s hospitals in Australia
  • EDMed, a free accredited professional development unit for teachers, helps schools meet the educational needs of children with cancer.

To find out more, visit Ronald McDonald Learning Program, call 1300 307 642 or email rmhc@rmhc.org.au.

Hospital-based programs 

Some hospitals have specialised programs to prepare students for the return to regular school. These programs liaise and collaborate with families, schools, hospital schools and oncology units to keep the child connected to their learning, their peers and their school community. Talk to your student’s hospital about the educational services and programs they provide.

Monkey in My Chair

This charity supports younger children while they are absent from school by providing a large toy monkey to sit in the absent child’s chair. The absent child also has a monkey. The class includes the monkey in all normal class activities and excursions, and photos are sent between children. For more information, visit Monkey in My Chair.

Ways to support an absent student

  • Provide the hospital school with curriculum outlines and a list of textbooks.
  • Send copies of worksheets and projects to the student at home or at the hospital school.
  • When the student returns schoolwork, acknowledge their efforts and provide them with feedback.
  • Make sure the student receives school newsletters and handouts.
  • Let the hospital school know if the student needs an extension or remediation program.
  • Facilitate online access to assignments or websites with information about school activities.
  • Find creative ways (such as Skype or video calls from class) to link the student with the school, especially if they are away from home or in isolation.
  • Understand that the student may be so unwell during their treatment that they may not be able to continue with their schoolwork.

Supporting the student’s classmates

If you are telling students about a classmate’s cancer, parents need to be aware that their children may come home upset, worried or with questions. The principal can send an email or a note home to prepare the parents.

You can expect a range of responses from students to the news. It’s important to remember that everyone reacts differently to a stressful situation, and age and personality will influence this. Some students may be visibly upset. Others could be angry, confused or annoyed. Some may have no outward reaction to the news, which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not listening or that they don’t care. Others may look to help in any way that they can.

Give the students opportunities to share how they’re feeling or ask questions. They might ask some difficult or sensitive questions, such as if they can “catch” cancer or if their classmate will die. Think about how you will respond to these questions ahead of time and approach the class in a sensitive manner (see Talking to kids about cancer for some suggestions).

In some cases, a member of the patient’s treatment team (such as the clinical nurse consultant), a local community nurse or an organisation like CanTeen may visit the school to explain what is happening to their classmate, and how the student will look and feel when they return. Geographically isolated schools may be able to access support over the phone or internet.

See Different views on cancer for strategies on how to talk to students of different ages. To prepare for potential questions about death, see How young people understand death.

Try to establish beforehand if some students are more likely to be upset because of their friendship with a classmate with cancer. If a student becomes very distressed, they may need to speak with a counsellor or teacher with whom they feel comfortable. Contact the parents to let them know about their child’s distress.

Regularly inform classmates about the student’s progress. This will help to keep the class connected and prepare them for the student’s return. Events such as fundraising for cancer charities may help channel the thoughts and energies of older classmates.

Siblings of students with cancer may need particular support because of the disruption they experience. They may sometimes feel forgotten, or believe they are responsible for what is going on. For more information and ways to help, see When a family member has cancer.

Common questions from classmates

  • How did they get sick?
  • Can I catch it?
  • If you can’t catch it, how do you get cancer?
  • How many people get cancer?
  • Will they miss school?
  • What am I supposed to say or do?
  • How can I be a friend to someone with cancer?
  • Should I share things that are bothering me? They seem silly or trivial compared to what my friend is going through.
  • Can people die from 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

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Practical advice and support during and after treatment

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Cancer information

Cancer treatment
Easy-to-read information on surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and clinical trials

Talking about treatment
How to talk to children about cancer treatment, with answers to common questions

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

Cancer in the School Community – Chapter 3
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