How to Answer Students' Questions About Cancer
In the September issue, we have a special feature in our Different Like You series, which explores what it’s like to go through the treatment for cancer as a teen. Many of you will have students in your class who have, or have had, cancer, or who have family members or friends who have had the disease.
It might feel intimidating to raise the emotional concerns around cancer in the classroom, but discussing them with sensitivity can help teens process the ideas and gain a greater sense of resilience around the topic.
To help you address the most common concerns that the story might raise without evoking fear, we’ve asked for help from Ellie Paparone, an education specialist from Alex’s Lemonade Stand, a foundation that works with schools to raise money for childhood cancer research funding (read all about how to work with ALSF on a fundraising event at your school in this Ideabook post.)
Concern #1: Miya seems just like me. What is the likelihood I’ll get cancer?
Take this opportunity to share the facts: Remind students that cancer is not something contagious or common—only 1 in 285 kids will get diagnosed by the time they’re 20. Let them know that while the likelihood they’ll get cancer is rare, there are great resources available for them if it does happen. Paparone also suggests pointing to child cancer heroes such as Miya as examples of those who’ve demonstrated resilience throughout their treatment.
Concern #2: If I get cancer, will I have to go through chemo and lose my hair, like Miya?
Be honest! Let them know some treatments will be quick, non-invasive procedures that only last a month; others can be long-term and go on for 10 or more years. Miya’s story can be used to open up a dialogue around body image and health concerns—yes, hair loss can happen with chemo, but it typically grows back. You can encourage them to shift their perspective: When caused by chemo, hair loss is a tremendous sign of strength in the face of illness.
Concern #3: My parent or sibling has cancer, or died from cancer, and it’s hard to hear Miya’s story without getting emotional.
Ask the student to share their story or alternately, allow them leave the classroom if they are finding it difficult to be involved in the discussion. After the class, explain that it’s not selfish to want to discuss their experiences, and recommend the importance of reaching out when they feel sad or overwhelmed. Suggest students get involved in a support group for family members with cancer—the SuperSibs! Section of Alex’s Lemonade Stand website has great resources, as does Momcology.
Concern #5: How can I be a better friend to someone who is going through cancer?
Teens going through cancer treatment really just want to feel normal—like they are still part of life at school, explains Paparone. Here are some do’s and don’ts:
- Let your friend know that you’ll be there for them throughout the treatment.
- Tell them how brave they are and how much they are inspiring everyone at school.
- Check in with parents, siblings or a teacher before hospital visits to make sure they’re up for it.
- Use technology—text, snap, send funny You Tube videos. You don’t always have to do in-person visits. In fact, staying in touch virtually will help them feel like they’re part of everyday life at school.
- Provide words of encouragement, like, “You’ll get through this.”
- Talk only about the illness; mundane details of everyday life are okay too!
- Lose touch just because they’re not at school or at sports.
- Bring up stories you’ve heard about other people you know going through cancer, or family members who’ve passed away—it will just bring them down.
- Hide your emotions or avoid contact because you’re uncomfortable…remember that your friend is still the same person and that they’re just going through something.
Concern #6: In hearing Miya’s story, I feel so helpless. What can I do to help?
When students hear personal accounts like Miya’s, they often feel compelled to do something, but aren’t always sure where to start. Let teens know that they can raise money for research, such as through dollar drives, bowl-a-thons, mile-runs, and lemonade stands. They can also send cards to children and teens going through treatment—or even make funny videos to raise their spirits!
We hope that these ideas will help you provide a successful, constructive, and meaningful learning experience for your students. For more resources, visit this page at Alex’s Lemonade Stand, which includes resources, tips for teachers, and downloadable posters.