How late effects of cancer treatment can affect your student's learning

How late effects of cancer treatment can affect your student's learning

Chemotherapy and radiotherapy will damage normal cells as well as cancerous ones. Some children will recover all function completely, but others may have difficulties.

Key points to remember

  • there may be long-term physical effects of childhood cancer and its treatment - some of these may be found well after treatment has finished
  • chemotherapy and radiotherapy will damage normal cells as well as cancerous ones
  • some children will recover all function completely, but others may have difficulties
  • teachers need to be aware that cancer treatment can have late effects on your student's learning

Boy drawing a picture

This is part of a whole section on education when a child has cancer for teachers. We also have a section for parents.

All children respond differently to cancer treatment

The kind of side effects your student has will depend on the type of cancer they have and treatment they receive. In many cases side effects are temporary, but for some children, there can be long-term physical effects or 'late effects'.

Issues from cranial irradiation

Cranial irradiation is a type of radiation therapy for brain tumours and some high-risk forms of leukaemia. It carries an increased risk of learning problems for children. Some children have shown significant declines in cognitive ability.

Specific issues can include problems with:

  • visual-motor skills
  • memory
  • attention span
  • motor skills

Nonverbal skills such as abstract reasoning, visual-spatial skills and mathematics are especially vulnerable to cranial irradiation and intrathecal chemotherapy.

What are some of the common learning difficulties?

Common difficulties include problems with:

  • reading
  • spelling
  • handwriting (unable to write accurately or quickly)
  • mathematics with concepts requiring short-term memory such as times tables
  • attention span or concentration - children may become hyperactive or inattentive
  • short-term memory-storage of new information and retention of material

Children who have had cranial irradiation treatment may benefit from neuropsychological evaluation. Often the learning difficulties can increase over time. Good assessment and appropriate intervention can help minimise any effect on your student's ability to learn.

Other physical problems

Cancer treatments can cause a number of physical health problems including:

  • delayed growth and early or late puberty
  • hearing damage
  • infertility
  • heart damage
  • lung problems
  • dental problems
  • kidney problems
  • eye problems

It is important that you let your student's parents know if you notice anything out of the ordinary that is ongoing.

Psychological effects

Survivors of childhood cancer may have a slightly increased risk of developing another cancer later in life. Learning to live with the worry of cancer returning (or developing another cancer) is another burden for these children and their families/whānau.

Research has shown that survivors of childhood cancer are at substantially greater psychological risk than survivors of other chronic but non-life-threatening illnesses.1

Siblings of children with cancer are also at increased risk of psychological problems. See Brothers and sisters of a student who has cancer.

1Cancer Care for the whole patient: Meeting psychosocial health needs - Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Psychosocial Services to Cancer Patients/Families in a Community Setting; Adler NE, Page AEK, editors. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2008.

The pages in the childhood cancer and education section of this website have been developed in collaboration with the National Child Cancer Network (NZ), and the Ministry of Education. Content has been approved by the National Child Cancer Network (NZ).

This page last reviewed 20 August 2018.
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