Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Working with Student(s) Whose Parent Has Cancer

I have recently run into one of those “learn-on-the-job” topics: working with a student whose parent has cancer.

I don’t have any experience in this realm professionally and not much on a personal level. However, I have had family members close to me get sick and have experienced familial loss.

When this student asked if we could set up an appointment, I got selfish for a split second and was relieved a student was willing to come and see me following my initial introduction the previous week. Then as I thought about this specific student’s case I realized that parental cancer was the topic at large.

During our session I couldn’t help but feel that I needed to educate myself on the topic as much as this student did in order to help them. Following the session I began to do some research online and discovered a few resources that will hopefully help both of us.

The first resource is When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens from the National Cancer Institute. This booklet is sort of comic-book-esqe and explores topics of:
  • feelings surrounding the diagnosis
  • changes within the family
  • ways to care for and get support for yourself
  • dealing with friends (who might not know how to respond)
  • how to help your parent

The booklet aims to normalize the feelings and experience of the child/teen, and help them realize they are not alone. The booklet also contains information on what cancer is and various available treatments, as well as a glossary. It also contains some quizzes and checklists that help children/teens reframe their thinking and identify what’s happening in a more concrete way.

When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens is available from www.cancer.gov and you can order free copies as well. They also have another helpful resource When Your Brother or Sister Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens. The National Cancer Institute also has a list of National Organizations That Offer Cancer-Related Services that include financial assistance, information, and/or emotional support.

Another resource is www.RipRap.org.uk. This site contains information about cancer, including the types, treatments, and a glossary. There are also individual stories that are sorted according to emotion and feeling. For example, if a child expresses they feel confused about the situation, they can read personal accounts from teens their own age. The link above brings you to the main “confused” page, which also includes synonyms and tips for coping when you are feeling this way. An additional feature is the opportunity for teens to ask for advice or ask questions.

The American Cancer Society also has resources relating to dealing with a parent’s terminal illness. This document (linked above) poses questions from the parent’s perspective about how to inform and educate their child. This would be a resource to provide to parents of student’s you are working with.

Livestrong has a FREE school-based curriculum available here for K-12 students. There are only a few lessons at each grade level, along with printables, but it could be a jumping off point for teachers and/or support staff to develop a group. The site also has a chart with how their lessons align with curriculum standards. Livestrong also partnered with PBS to develop an Arthur episode (for the younger students) titled “The Great MacGrady,” which is about coping with the fact the school lunch lady has cancer. This can be purchased on iTunes, Amazon, or viewed on YouTube.

In addition to these organizations and information, supporting the student within the school day is critical. In working with students it is important to ensure they are taking care of themselves.

  • Suggest that the student speak with their teachers in some capacity (in-person, over email, with adult, alone) to explain what is going on at home. There is not need to get in depth with details, but it is also important for their teacher to know what is happening. This protects the student against absences, missed/late assignments, spacing out in class.
  • Encourage the student to continue participation in extracurricular and “normal” life activities. The student needs to keep themselves busy and maintain as typical and normal of a schedule as possible. Explain that there is no need to feel guilty for doing what they want to do and maintaining routine.
  • Help the student identify their supports at home and at school. Who can this student talk to and lean on when they need it most? Many students (and people in general) feel as though they need to maintain a brave face for the sake of everyone around them, including the sick parent. Students should have a person they trust and can express what they are going through; someone who will listen and accept them. So many times students hold in their emotions and hold back the tears. Help to normalize their emotional experience and using the resources linked above may be a good starting point.

Now, there is plenty more to learn about this one topic. However, much the information can be translated to other situations and illnesses.

If you have any other suggestions or resources, feel free to comment below and share them with other readers!

Until next thyme,


  1. This blog post is stellar! As a former high school student who had no support at school when her mom was dying of cancer, I'm so glad that a student reached out to you and you were able to educate each other. :)

  2. Thanks so much! Looking forward to sharing all my research with her at the end of the week. Despite not having anyone there for you, so glad you will be there for so many students :)

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