Most children are welcomed back into the classroom with kindness and caring, and with curiosity. In the beginning, your child might describe people staring. Occasionally, another child will ask direct questions that might focus on changes in appearance. (“Will your hair grow back?” or “Can I try your crutches?”) Help your child to be prepared for these reactions and to understand that cancer is new to the other children. Encourage your child to answer questions straightforwardly. Your child is an “expert” about cancer and other children will want to learn about it. Within a few days, the staring usually stops and both younger children and most teens will return to their previous interactions.
If your child can get together with friends before returning to school, they can develop a strategy for the first few school days. Typically, they will plan to have at least one friend with your child when walking between classes, eating lunch, and sitting in class. The friends can talk with a teacher or counselor about their plans to support your child’s return to school. The school can arrange to give the designated friend or “helper” the privilege of leaving class early to accompany your child to the next class, taking the elevator with your child or going to lunch with your child ahead of the rush. If comments are made that are teasing or disrespectful, not only can your child respond but friends can also challenge these comments, making it less likely that these types of comments will continue.
Occasionally the stress of going to school can be just one too many things to cope with. Your child may say he or she does not want to return to school or will not finish their schoolwork. They may complain of stomach aches or other ailments. As a parent, you can find it hard to sort out which symptoms might be related to worries about school and which symptoms might be related to treatment. Fevers are a clear symptom that something is going on medically. But, what does a parent do when the child is mildly fatigued? Do you encourage – or even force – your child to go to school?
It is often easier to distinguish illness from stress or anxiety in a younger child than it is in a teenager. Complicating the issue further is the fact that cancer and its treatment have robbed the teenager of the independence that comes with being 15 and in high school, or 16 and driving, or 18 and almost in college or working. If they do not appreciate the life-or-death significance of receiving chemo or radiation therapy, you, as a parent, do and have therefore not offered the option of foregoing treatment because it causes nausea or makes hair fall out. They may have nowhere to exert themselves except in refusing to go to school or to do their homework. Enlisting the help of a school counselor who understands what the teen is experiencing or introducing the teen to a schoolmate who also has cancer can be invaluable.
We encourage parents to handle these issues in the same way they have always handled them. You know your child well and have been making judgments about illness and going to school for years. Remember, if you are in doubt about what to do, the oncology team can provide advice based on treating many, many children and teens over the years.