Written by Robert Peterpaul
Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Micheal Guerrera
When a student is diagnosed with cancer, word travels fast within the school. The shockwave can leave community members unsure of how to help. At its core, a school is meant to support pupils, but there’s no official handbook on this matter. However, as much as a cancer diagnosis can shock a school it can mobilize one to help the family in need too.
One of the major challenges with cancer is grieving for life as we knew it. For students, a big portion of that life was being in school. It’s essential that institutions and their communities support families affected by cancer. Here are five ways to do it.
1. Check in with the family
Though your brain may instantly churn up ideas to manage the family’s distress, it’s important to let them breathe for a bit. Cancer ushers people into a whole new world, jumbled with medical jargon and painful thoughts of loss. Sometimes, merely offering comfort is the best route. Simply reach out and see where they’re at, or take the cue from those closest to them. In the wake of a diagnosis, families tend to keep busy and cover their own bases pretty quickly. It’s when things start to settle that they’ll need the community to rally around them.
2. Rally the troops
This generally falls under the responsibility of school administrators. Arrange a meeting with the family and relevant parties, including: the principal, the student’s teachers, and the school’s counselor. Be proactive and let the family know you are there for whatever they need. Try to hold monthly meetings with the family if possible, as their needs will change.
For community members, the initial rallying of troops looks a bit different. Generally, the people closest to the affected family will form a network of volunteers. This ensures everyone is on the same page and working together. From there, duties can be assigned.
Are there other students in the family? Make sure they have rides to and from school and after school activities. Transportation for cancer patients is an often overlooked way to help.
Does the family need help with meals? Organize a meal train or look into a food delivery service for cancer patients. Are the parents staying in another area with their sick child? See if they need babysitters. Overall, go through the basic necessities of your own family and pinpoint how you think you can help theirs.
3. Appoint a school liaison
A vital first step for a school is appointing a liaison for the student with cancer. On a basic level, enlisting a volunteer to oversee all communications and ensure that the cancer patient isn’t left in the dark is a huge service. Having a point person that can spend time sorting out matters with the school allows the parents to focus on what matters most: their child’s health.
With that said, schools are legally obligated to support a sick student’s education. Depending on their diagnosis, the family may want to be sent assignments, lessons, and homework. If requested, the student should have access to everything their classmates are receiving. This will ease the transition for when they’re hopefully able to go back to school.
In many cases, schools will assist in procuring a tutor for the student to ensure they don’t fall behind. There are even foundations that specialize in this and provide free educational resources.
4. Organize events
This is where community members and the PTA can shine in proviiding cancer support.. Gather your support team and organize a school-sanctioned event that will benefit the family. From blood drives to fundraisers to prayer vigils, the options are endless. Choose whatever fits the situation. In a COVID-19 world, there are ways to safely hold virtual versions of almost any event. It will show the family that their school is behind them.
5. Utilize simple ways to make student smile
In all your efforts to support the family as a whole, don’t forget who the number one focus is: the cancer patient. Long hospital stays and daily treatments can leave anyone feeling pretty drained and isolated, let alone a growing child. It’s important for fellow students to show them they’re not alone
Here are three examples of how schools can give cancer support and keep their friend smiling:
- Get crafty! Have classes (especially the patient’s class) make cards or care packages to send to their home or the hospital. Reading these and putting them on display will go a very long way for the patient’s morale.
- Let the kid be a kid! While it may seem scary or tonedeaf to involve the classmate in social activities or the trivial daily grind, many times that’s what they miss the most. If they’re open to it, try to keep the student involved in the funny group chats or have virtual hangouts. Invite them to the school musical, pep rally or any school function they’d like. Even if they can’t safely attend, the thought is what counts .
- Visitors! In a COVID-19 world, class trips to the hospital may not be practical, but we all know utilizing technology is. Organize surprise virtual visits with classes or put together video messages to show the patient they’re loved.
Academic life has the power to shape people. Cancer shouldn’t rob a person of the experience, even if theirs is a bit different. After all, if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that different is the new normal.