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 further or higher 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.
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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
- 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.
Supporting pupils, students and trainees with cancer is about flexibility and open communication. Make offers to meet and discuss their needs at every stage – whether that’s just after diagnosis, or once they have returned to education. Be open to talking to people involved in their care – they might be able to help facilitate options for continuing their education.
People with cancer automatically meet the definition of ‘disabled’ under the Equality Act (England, Wales and Scotland) and the Disability Discrimination Act (Northern Ireland). Education and training providers have a duty not to discriminate against potential, current or former students.
Discrimination can take various forms including:
- Direct discrimination e.g. rejecting a student’s application for a course or apprenticeship for cancer-related reasons
- Indirect discrimination e.g. requiring students to use online systems which are not accessible to screen reading software. This could be seen as indirect discrimination against a student with a visual impairment caused by cancer.
- Discrimination arising from disability e.g. penalising students for missing classes, without taking their cancer into account
- Harassment e.g. bullying, abuse, inappropriate comments, jokes or gestures
- Victimisation e.g. treating a student with cancer less favourably because they have previously made a complaint about discrimination.
Students need to tell you about their diagnosis before you can put support in place. Once they have, start by asking the young person’s views on the support they need and what they would find useful. You should make changes to help them do their course or training during and after treatment. This is called making ‘reasonable adjustments’. What’s considered a reasonable adjustment always depends on individual circumstances, for example, if fatigue is an issue, it might be reasonable to provide supervised rest breaks during exams.
- extra time for coursework and extensions to deadlines if they have fatigue
- scribes or notetakers
- a designated parking space
- a locker or somewhere they can leave stuff rather than carry it around
- arrangements for special dietary needs, for example being allowed to keep food in a fridge or eat snacks during classes
- flexibility in attendance and punctuality when they go for hospital appointments and treatment
- support for practical and field work
- use of computers and specialist software in exams
- communication with staff during any periods they’re away
- staff awareness of cancer and the impact it can have (while keeping information about the student’s individual situation confidential).
You might choose to arrange a more formal needs assessment. This is standard practice in higher education where the assessment can be wrapped up with the Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) needs assessment. DSAs could pay for specialist equipment such as a digital recorder for recording lectures or magnification software if they have a visual impairment caused by cancer, and extra travel costs if a student needs to use taxis rather than public transport. In England and Wales, students with a cancer diagnosis may also have an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan. This plan can be shared with colleges and training providers to help them arrange the necessary support.
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.