Fitting Cancer into the School Year
10 Tips to Help Your Kid Succeed in School While Coping with Cancer in the Family
by Carissa Hodgson, LCSW, OSW-C
It’s back-to-school season! This time of year can be a major adjustment for all families as we transition into fall. But how do you handle the added stress of lunchboxes, homework, early school start times, and bedtime meltdowns when you’re already dealing with a cancer diagnosis?
Here are 10 tips you can use to help your kid succeed this school year while coping with cancer in the family.
1. Communicate with the school about what’s going on.
This can be the whole team or just one person (for example, your child’s teacher, school social worker, or guidance counselor). If you have older children, and definitely if you have teens, have a conversation with them first about what information can be shared and what should be kept private.
2. Work out an emotional safety plan with your child.
Help your child find someone they can talk to if they’re feeling upset during the day. You may even work out a discreet signal they can give to the teacher if they’re having a rough time and don’t want to be called upon. Certainly, communicate any of this information with your child’s teacher so everyone is on the same page.
3. Keep an eye on academic performance.
Signs of distress often emerge at school. For example, changes in grades and behavior may signal the need for extra support. You and your child’s teacher may be able to work out flexible assignment dates and accommodations for exams.
4. Educate the school.
Your child’s classmates may know nothing about cancer. Some school staff may be clueless as well. This is an opportunity to invite an oncology professional (social worker, psychologist, child life specialist, or nurse) to offer an educational presentation at your child’s school to help kids and staff better support your child.
5. Create a team.
Use an online support networking site like MyLifeLine (mylifeline.org), CaringBridge (caringbridge.org), or Lotsa Helping Hands (lotsahelpinghands.com) to organize the help people are offering to you. Carpooling, meals delivered to your home, grocery shopping, and other tasks that drain your energy can be done by others so you can focus on recovery, caregiving, or spending time with your kids.
6. Maintain routine (and expectations).
It’s tempting to let the details of life slide when you or your partner is going through cancer. Though well-intended, this may do more damage than good. Keep things like after-school activities, bedtime routines, and chores as consistent as possible.
7. Maintain open communication with your kids at home.
Remind them it’s OK to ask you questions. Keep them informed about your treatment in a manner that matches their level of understanding. Read them age-appropriate books about cancer. And check in with them regularly.
8. Find time to connect with your kids (as well as your partner and yourself).
Though cancer may feel like it’s taking up all your time, it isn’t your life. Find time to play, laugh, and relax. Spend time with people and participate in activities that matter to you.
9. Keep stress in check.
A cancer diagnosis almost guarantees a rise in anxiety for everyone in the family. Find ways to de-stress. Help your children breathe, meditate, and relax. Even five minutes of a relaxation practice can help. Guided meditations right before bed can help EVERYONE get a better night’s rest!
10. Find support if it’s needed.
Find a mental health professional who understands cancer and families. Reach out to your clinic if you need help connecting with someone.
Carissa Hodgson is a family therapist and certified oncology social worker. She has worked with families facing cancer for 10 years at Gilda’s Club Madison, an affiliate of the Cancer Support Community, in Madison, WI. She is the cochair of the Youth, Families, and Cancer Special Interest Group with the Association of Oncology Social Workers.
If you need support during this time, the Cancer Support Community offers free professional phone support (Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–9 p.m. ET) at 1-888-793-9355, as well as 24/7 online discussion boards at CancerSupportCommunity.org.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2019.