Helping kids with cancer transition back to school

Winter 2013

At a glance, 10-year-old Sarah Berger looks just like her fifth grade classmates. Like many of them, she loves going to school and spending time doing outdoor activities. And unless she mentions it, one would never guess that Berger missed her entire fourth grade year while she battled leukemia.

After Berger suffered repeat bouts of the same mysterious illness during the summer after Grade three, Berger’s parents began to suspect that something more serious was going on. A visit to the emergency department at Children’s Hospital at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) led to the discovery of a build-up of calcium on her kidneys and the eventual diagnosis of leukemia.

Berger’s two-and-a-half-month stay in the hospital, plus weekly follow-up treatments, kept her out of school for an entire year. She is just one of the many children who are impacted by childhood cancers each year.

Over the past 20 years the survivor rates for childhood cancers have steadily improved in Canada. Today more than 80 per cent of children survive cancer, so the importance of addressing the things that will impact their lives as they transition to adulthood, such as education, is greater than ever. To help address this, Children’s Hospital at LHSC has implemented a school liaison program. 

“School is a vital part of a child’s life and cancer is a huge interruption in a child’s development – socially, emotionally, cognitively and physically,” says, Ann Klinck, psychological associate, school liaison for the paediatric cancer school support program at LHSC. “My role as a school liaison is really to help minimize that interruption as much as possible.”

During the year that Berger was unable to attend school, Klinck provided a presentation to her class at Monsignor Morrison Catholic School, helping them to better understand what Berger was going through by providing age-appropriate information about childhood cancer and discussing how they can support their friend. She helped the children to learn that cancer is not contagious, is treatable, and that the strong medicine causes side effects such as hair loss.

Berger’s teacher, Mary Intven-Wallace, also went above and beyond in making sure that Berger stayed connected to her classmates. The class held a desk for Berger and sat a teddy bear, named Peter, in her place to keep it warm. Intven-Wallace and the class would send her e-mails about whether Peter had been good or bad in class and her classmates would also regularly e-mail photos of Peter doing activities at her desk, causing mischief or participating in various school trips, which Berger thought were very funny.

Berger also worked with a tutor, which was provided by the school board, to make sure she kept up with her studies and would return to school at a learning level that would be on-par with her peers.

When Berger returned to the fifth grade this past fall, she was thrilled to find out she was in a Grade four/five split and would have the same teacher who had made such an effort the previous year. To help her new classmates understand cancer, Klinck returned again for another classroom presentation. She and Sarah’s parents also met with teachers to make sure that they had the information they needed to meet Sarah’s needs at school.

While she still misses school occasionally for follow-up appointments or because of illness, Berger is doing well and thanks to the work of Klinck, the efforts of Intven-Wallace and the kindness and compassion of her schoolmates, she has had little difficulty transitioning back into the classroom.

How LHSC’s school liaison program helps
As the regional referral centre for paediatric oncology, the school liaison program works with children and their families in 17 different school boards.

The program provides support to both the family and the school. Following a referral to the program, Klinck will meet with the child and family, assess their needs and begin to develop a plan to help the child continue with their education during treatment. If the child is well enough to continue attending school, even on a limited basis, they are strongly encouraged to do so.

Some of the ways that Klinck provides support include:

  • Provision of a teacher’s handbook (a free online resource she helped to develop)
  • Discussions with the classmates and peers of children with cancer and their siblings
  • In-services with teachers 
  • Counselling with children and parents as they prepare to go back to school
  • Collaboration with families and schools to help prepare for the instances when the child will not get better 

 

Klinck notes that “because the treatment of childhood cancer is so different from adult cancers, it’s not usually something that many teachers have dealt with either personally or professionally. Our program offers educators the tools they need to support the student with cancer, as well as help their other students better understand in an age-appropriate manner.”

With some cancer treatments lasting more than three years, Klinck will continue to work with the family and the school each fall to ensure that everyone’s needs are being met. Klinck is also part of the Paediatric Oncology AfterCare Program team. AfterCare clinics provide follow up for childhood cancer survivors and monitor children for possible long-term effects of treatment such as sterility, cardiac complications, learning impairments and secondary cancers.

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•	Following a year away due to cancer, Sarah Berger is happy to be back at school and in class with her teacher, Mary Intven-Wallace
Sharing a special board about her cancer journey that her mom helped her put together
Sharing her math exercises
Ready to test out the catapult she built for class