If your child has been able to keep in touch through texting, phone calls, Skype or Facebook, then many classmates will have at least some idea of what your child has experienced since diagnosis. However, relying on children’s — and even teenager’s — understanding from such contacts alone is usually not sufficient. If possible, ask someone from your child’s oncology team (e.g., nurse, social worker, child life specialist) to talk with the school. At the least, a medical person should talk with the school nurse. It is best, however, if someone can talk with the nurse, involved administrators, key teachers and, most importantly, your child’s classmates. Some children enjoy participating in this process while others would rather have it occur before they return to school. The hospital professional can answer questions and help reduce any anxiety in staff and students about how to treat your child and dispel myths about what causes cancer and whether or not cancer is contagious. The speaker should also have students brainstorm how to welcome your child back into the classroom.
If no member of the team can provide this service, then we urge you to talk with your child’s classmates. Of course, it is important to get your child’s permission to do this, and even better if your child will join you in presenting to the class. However, you need to be respectful of your child’s anxieties and be prepared to meet with the class alone. Occasionally, a child, especially a younger teen, will say no to any communication with the class, at least initially. After getting back to school, however, the child’s anxiety about being perceived as “different” because of the cancer begins to lessen. Sometimes children are surprised to learn that their illness has actually given them celebrity status and their willingness to discuss experiences may increase.
Children in the classroom will be interested in the fact that your child had to take medication and they often want to know if hair that has fallen out will grow back. Typically, classmates do not know about catheters and what having one means in terms of activities. Young classmates’ major concerns are often about whether they can catch cancer (like a cold) from your child. Students of all ages need to know that getting cancer is no one’s fault; in fact, we really do not yet understand why some children or teens get cancer at all.