My student has cancer

Cancer impacts young people's lives in different ways. Whether they continue attending school, college or university will depend on their treatment - some will be fine to carry on as usual, others will need time off. You, as someone who plays a vital role in their education, can help them to stay engaged with learning and provide them with much needed continuity in their lives, amidst the disruption that cancer causes.

How is cancer treated?

The treatment pattern and level of disruption to normal life will vary from person to person. It depends on their cancer and how locally they are receiving treatment. Some young people will have to travel long distances to a specialist centre.

They may have to stay in for long periods at a time, or they might be able to go in and out for treatment and lead a more regular day to day life. The main treatments for cancer are surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

What are the physical effects?

Side effects of treatment can include:

  • feeling and being sick
  • tiredness and fatigue
  • breathlessness
  • pain
  • changes in mood
  • eating difficulties
  • reduced resistance to infection
  • hair loss
  • a limb amputation or scarring
  • other changes in physical appearance, such as changes in weight and swollen hands, face, ankles or feet.

It’s important not to assume your pupil or student has recovered just because their hair has grown back or they’re no longer receiving hospital treatment as an inpatient. Young people may have late effects from treatment. For some, this can mean muscle pain, dips in energy and lethargy.

What are the emotional effects?

Cancer damages young people’s self-esteem and can cause anxiety. Putting their life on hold or having their plans derailed could make them feel insecure about their future prospects. It’s tough being the only one in your peer group dealing with something this life altering, and they might feel very isolated – watching their friends moving on with their lives while they’re stuck in hospital won’t help. Plus, their confidence can be shaken by the harrowing effects of treatment.

After treatment finishes, they will have to deal with the fear of relapse, any lasting physical effects and the pressure to ‘get back to normal’. Feeling connected and valued – from the moment of diagnosis to dealing with the aftermath – can help.

How can I help my student?

All experiences are different. The best thing you can do is talk to your student to understand how cancer is affecting them. Stay connected. Show them that they are important and valued.

In a nutshell?

Be empathetic. The young person should know that you are invested in their life and that you will listen to them and their needs. Make sure they know who to talk to, if that person isn't you. Check they know how to access any support available and put them in touch with other services at your institution such as money advice, accommodation, health centres, counselling and careers advice.