The most significant thing a school can do when a child is first diagnosed with cancer is to work out a strategy for communicating with the parents, the ill child, school-aged siblings and the faculty. While the family makes the final decision about how much contact the child will have with school, we encourage the school to designate a point person who will coordinate communication between the school and the family. This person can be the principal, the child’s main teacher if the child is young or a favorite teacher or counselor if the child is in middle school or high school.
In general, we encourage broad and general support for the child and family. Because parents are often in shock when their child is diagnosed, it can be helpful for one person from the school to express the school’s concern for all members of the family. This person can express their desire to stay in touch and support the ill child and any siblings or other close child relatives in the district. Parents are often so overwhelmed with the amount of information and the number of crucial decisions that they have to make that they may not have thought about the implications the diagnosis and treatment will have for school.
At first, parents may not want to give out much information, especially if they are not clear about the details of their child’s diagnosis or treatment. However, many families find that once treatment is started and they have become more comfortable with words like “cancer,” they welcome the opportunity to share information and have contact with teachers and their child’s classmates. School represents hope for the future for parents and children. Sharing information also helps to minimize rumors.
It is important to be aware that some staff members may have previous experience with cancer, either as a patient themselves or as a friend or relative of a cancer patient. The diagnosis of cancer in a student can generate strong feelings that can be expressed in both positive and negative ways. It is helpful to remind staff members that more than 80% of children with cancer survive long term; therefore, the school should focus on supporting the child’s engagement socially and academically with the intention that he or she will progress normally.
Some families may prefer to not share any information whatsoever, which can be challenging for school personnel. Nevertheless, respecting the family’s confidentiality is essential and a simple message to that effect, without apology, is all that needs to be provided to anyone who inquires.
If the family is willing to share information, the family and the school’s primary contact person should decide what is shared and to what audiences. We recommend, however, that at least the child’s and sibling’s teachers, coaches and counselors be informed so that they have accurate information rather than having to rely on guessing and rumors.
Among all the many questions that will arise, two issues should be addressed as soon as possible:
- How to refer to the child’s illness — “cancer,” “tumor,” “leukemia,” “osteogenic sarcoma” or other appropriate terms. The term selected may vary depending on the age of the students.
- How to respond to teachers and to classmates or their parents if they would like to visit in the hospital or at home.