Supporting Teenage Students With Cancer

Supporting Teenage Students With Cancer

Having cancer often interrupts the normal developmental process a teenager goes through as they become independent from their parents and other adults.


Key points to remember about supporting teenage students with cancer

  • open communication is vital in easing your student's transition back to school
  • cancer and treatment may limit some things your teenage student can do
  • teasing or rejection by peers can result in the teen withdrawing from school, sports and social activities
  • it is important for teenagers with cancer to work on positive thinking skills and short-term goal setting
  • it's important to consider any specific things your student may require to transition back to school 

What kind of challenges will my teenage student with cancer face when returning to school?

Returning to school is usually a very positive experience for young people who have a cancer diagnosis. It is often a time of personal growth and an opportunity to carry on with life outside of the hospital and cancer treatment.

However, it is important to think about some of the challenges your teenage student may face returning to school while managing their illness. 

It is a good idea to check in with your student before they return to school and talk with them about any worries or concerns they might have. Remember, every teenager is different and there is 'no one size fits all' for the best way to return to school.

How can good communication help my teenage student with cancer?

Communication is vital in easing your student's transition back to school. Good, open communication can help prevent further challenges for your student.

Early in your student's cancer treatment, identify a single school staff member to act as the key contact. This will help create open communication channels. This could be you, the principal, their syndicate leader or their favourite teacher. This staff member can be responsible for liaising with your student's parents and for sharing information with all the teachers involved with your student as appropriate. It is important for them to gain permission from the student and their whānau before sharing any personal information. 

It is important for parents and school representatives to communicate regularly. This is especially true at the beginning of terms and when your student's medical condition changes. These changes could be due to complications from treatment, relapse, or another illness.

Aim to have more than one person at the school they can talk to if they have concerns.

Physical limitations and/or anxiety can interfere with taking part in sport, school and social activities. This can leave your student with cancer feeling isolated. Teasing or rejection by peers can result in your teenage student withdrawing. It is important the key contact person checks in with them regularly to see how the transition is going.

"There was good communication between the Southern Health School and my school so everyone knew where I was at with my work, and were able to support me as much as needed" - Teri.

How can I help my student manage their illness? 

Every student's diagnosis and treatment will be very different, so to is how they manage their illness. Some may need more support than others. 

Some things to consider are:

  • does your student need access to a private bathroom
  • does your student need support managing their medications
  • is your student struggling with brain fog which could affect their attention
  • do they need a place in the classroom where they can lie down or rest

How can I help my student with cancer feel more connected?

Your student may have spent some time away from school to get treatment resulting in large periods of social isolation. An important part of adolescent development is connecting with peers and enganging in an educational environment. 

At a time when self-identity and friendships are hugely important, other students can quickly classify a teenager with cancer as 'different'. This can be due to both the illness and the resulting physical changes from treatment.

Help them feel connected to classmates by encouraging peer-based activities, or establishing a support network. They may want to choose a couple of friends to help them with day to day activities, or keeping them up to date on anything they have missed. Having one or two friends who are well informed and close to your teenage student will help them to feel supported and included, even if other young people are not aware of their circumstances.

You can also talk to your student's whānau about getting in touch with CanTeen. CanTeen supports 13-24-year-olds living with cancer, whether they are dealing with their own cancer or that of a sibling or parent.

It's also important to keep alert for signs of conflict and escalate accordingly. 

What strategies can I use to help my student?

It is important to think about your student's personality and preferences before helping them to fit back into school and social environments. For instance, teenagers who were shy before diagnosis will have different needs and tendencies than teenagers who enjoy large social networks.

Some things you can do to help include: 

  • work with them to create an educational action plan covering things such as what credits and assessments they want to achieve
  • incorporate positive thinking skills
  • set realistic goals and help them plan the steps to achieve them
  • talk to your student and their whānau about their social needs and expectations and the level of support they are comfortable with
  • work with your student to identify in or out of school activities or social networks to build their confidence 

"I was also told by my teachers that I did not have to attempt every standard and only do what I needed to pass which was really good, as I didn't need to stress about not having enough time, dealing with chemo brain etc" - Teri.

Find out more about supporting your student return to school

How can I help my teenage student with cancer navigate the busy school environment?

The size and complexity of your secondary school can have an impact on your student's return to school. Secondary students deal with many teachers and different students and classes. While immediate classmates may be understanding and supportive, other students may not know about your student's illness or treatment.

Large classes and having different teachers can make it difficult to maintain good contact while your student is away. Having a single contact person in the school can help to improve communication. They can be responsible for communicating to all relevant staff. It is also important they ask the student what may help them navigate school more easily. 

Secondary schools can be large and spread out which can be difficult if your student has physical problems or suffers from fatigue. If appropriate, you can help by letting your student leave class early. This will give them more time to get to their next lesson and help them avoid the rush of other students.

Should I be flexible with school rules for my teenage student with cancer?

Talk to your student about whether any school rules will make life challenging for them. Simple things like uniform rules may need rethinking so that a student who has lost their hair can wear a cap or scarf. 

How can counselling help my teenage student with cancer?

Having cancer often interrupts the normal developmental process a teenager goes through as they become independent from their parents and other adults.

Cancer and treatment can also limit the number of activities a teenager can do. A young person after diagnosis may need a high level of support. It is a good idea to involve school counsellors from the very beginning.

Parents, teachers and other adults may find that they want to keep the teenager close to keep them safe and well. This can be frustrating for teenagers who want more independence. If you sense your teenage student is frustrated, it is important to talk to them about it. Otherwise, well-meaning extra attention may make the situation worse.

Transitioning back into an educational environment can naturally cause apprehension and anxiety. Counselling by trained professionals for your student, their parents and caregivers, can help open up lines of communication. It can also help your teenage student to develop strategies that allow them to safely exercise more freedom of choice in school and home life.

How can the health school help my teenage student with cancer return to school?

A health school teacher will liaise with your school about your student's return to your school. They can organise a meeting with key staff at the school to discuss things such as whether your student will need to begin part-time, how their timetable might look, and what support the school might put in place. If your school has concerns about the student's health needs the health school teacher can arrange for someone to offer advice.

Will my teenage student with cancer need derived grades or Special Assessment Conditions?

If your teenage student is too sick to sit exams, or if treatment has had a major effect on their performance in an external assessment, they can apply to the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) for a derived grade. A derived grade is based solely on your student's pre-existing results record held by your school.

Visit the NZQA website to find out more about derived grades.

They may also be able to apply for Special Assessment Conditions (SAC). Special Assessment Conditions provide extra help for approved students when they are being assessed for their NCEA to give them a fair opportunity to achieve credits. The support is used for internal standards and external (exams) standards. Examples of SAC include the student being able to have a reader or writer, use a computer, have rest breaks or have enlarged papers.

Find out more about Special Assessment Conditions on the New Zealand Qualifications Authority website.

See more information for educators

See more information for whānau


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 12 May 2022.

Call Healthline on 0800 611 116 any time of the day or night for free health advice when you need it