School and work during and after cancer

Having cancer can be hugely disruptive to everyday life including schoolwork and other kinds of work. Here the young people interviewed talk about how their own individual lives have been affected as far as their work and their education were concerned. This included the problems they experienced, their feelings about going back to school or work during or after treatment and the reactions of their schools and their teachers. How friends and peers reacted when they went back to school is covered elsewhere (see 'Impact on friends).
For many of the young people that we interviewed having cancer meant missing one or more years of school or university and on returning, finding a whole group of new classmates. This could be hard to deal with because they missed their old friends and were nervous about making new ones. Some were also scared or embarrassed to go back to school during or shortly after their treatment ended because their confidence was low and they were concerned about how other young people would react to them looking so ill, with no hair, and being either thin or overweight (see 'Body image during and after cancer’). Others found the idea of interacting with people their own age difficult because they had spent so long away (Interviews 09, 08, 25).

Young people identified several specific problems about going back to school. These resulted from their illness or treatment. They found that even many months after their treatment had ended they could still feel exhausted. For some there was the possibility of having physical limitations and no longer being able to engage in sports. A few who had had brain tumours had memory and concentration problems. Others who were too ill to attend school during their treatment had had a home or hospital tutor, or their school sent them work to do at home. Another problem was the increase chances of catching an infection, particularly chicken pox, and they would have to stay away if warned of an outbreak. Wherever possible young people who were able to attend school during treatment did so, but this was often on an irregular basis. Luckily quite a few young people were able to study and take exams at home while undergoing their treatment.

Although for some their education had been an important part of their lives even before they developed cancer, for others, having cancer made them realise how important their education actually was. For instance a young woman was determined to continue her A Level revision in hospital while going through chemotherapy, but found she did not have the energy to do so (Interview 13). Another, a young man, found cancer a 'massive inconvenience’ because it disrupted his educational project (Interview 04). Several indicated that their cancer experience made them more aware of their strengths and resourcefulness, with remarks like, 'Now I know I’m able to do anything I want as long as I work for it’, or, ’I don’t think I would have gone to university if I hadn’t had cancer’. Many took the attitude that they should use their time more fruitfully and plan for the future saying, for example, 'I need my education because I want to be able to get a good job’ (Interview 12). School was also seen as important because it meant getting back their normal routine and social life, instead of feeling isolated at home. 
On the other hand a few found it very difficult because their illness had left them with memory problems, so feelings of wanting to ’give up’ could be relative common. This was particularly frustrating for those young people who had been especially good students before their illness but then found themselves struggling to remember even the simplest information after it was all over. A young man with memory problems who had a home tutor to support him through his GCSEs had to find new ways of learning, which was hard. A girl that had successfully finished her A levels then a degree in Bio-medical sciences said that she had found a scribe particularly helpful and had done exercises on her computer (Interview 17). 

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How the school and teachers reacted
Most teenagers found their schools understanding during their illness, and some had certainly relaxed school rules in order to meet their educational needs during treatment. For instance they allowed the young person with cancer to sign themselves off and go home if they felt too tired to stay at school. Also most young people found their teachers to be particularly supportive. Some teachers had even provided extra lessons or coursework to help them catch up with the studies that they had missed during their treatment. One young man, during his illness and treatment, said that a teacher from his school gave him lifts each day (Interview 07). In another case a young girl was able to talk about her own cancer experience with two of her teachers because they had both had cancer too (Interview 12). Not surprisingly it was necessary for some young people to drop the odd subject at school and a few of those affected by memory problems were given extra time when taking exams (Interview 14).

But not all young people and their families found their schools to be totally helpful or supportive. A young man who had spent several months in hospital found that his school had not been kept up to date about his cancer treatment. As a result his family received a visit from a welfare officer because his absences were taken as truancy (Interview 14). In another school a young cancer patient was being bullied and both she and her mother found the head teacher quite unsympathetic. This resulted in the girl losing her self-confidence and failing academically. Her mother then had to move her to a school for people with special needs and her resulting lack of qualifications meant she didn’t get to go to university like her friends.

It was inevitable that some young people with cancer felt that their treatment had had an impact on their career choices and prospects and a few even decided not to return to their school. As a result some faced difficulties when trying to build a career and others were unable to take full time or paid employment. But employers were willing to be flexible and a young man who had been a welder was working full time in the same company but doing less heavy work. In another case a cancer patient had felt very much supported by his boss although he had only just started his new job when he had been diagnosed.

In some cases career plans had been changed following their cancer experience, and this included wanting to help other young people with cancer. One girl talked of doing a Masters degree in dance therapy, which she could use for post cancer therapy (Interview 15); a young man chose to study science A Levels with a view to possibly doing medicine (Interview 18), and another was studying pharmacy (Interview 09). Young people were also working in cancer charities as volunteers or on a part time basis.

Last reviewed December 2017.

Last updated November 2014.



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