Balancing Cancer & School

After a cancer diagnosis, children, adolescents, and young adults are likely to experience triage-cancer-blog-schoolmedical and non-medical complications in school. Therefore, parents and teachers should be aware of the educational issues related to cancer in order to meet their needs.

High-risk Cancers and Treatments

There are some cancers that cause children to have a higher risk of educational difficulties. These include brain tumors, tumors involving the eye or ear, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. There are also treatments, such as methotrexate, cytarabine, surgery involving the brain, and radiation to the brain, ear/infratemporal region, cisplatin, or carboplatin, that place children at a higher risk for developing learning and memory problems. In addition, research continues to uncover the connection between cognitive function and treatment for all types of cancer.

Common Problems Areas

The cancers and treatments mentioned above may potentially pose challenges with:

  • Attention/ability span
  • Ability to complete tasks on time
  • Concentration
  • Handwriting
  • Math
  • Memory
  • Organization
  • Planning
  • Problem-solving
  • Processing
  • Reading
  • Social skills
  • Spelling
  • Vocabulary

Dealing with Learning Problems

After treatment, it can be valuable for children to undergo a specialized evaluation by a pediatric psychologist; the examination will reveal how he/she processes and organizes information. If your child or student is having difficulties in school, make an appointment with the parent/teacher to establish a specialized plan. The plan should consist of specifically tailored strategies that will help the child better succeed. Examples of strategies that often help children with cancer-related educational problems are:

  • Seating near the front of the room
  • Modifying the test
  • Prolonging assignment due dates
  • Allowing the use of a calculator, keyboard, or tape-recorded textbooks and lectures
  • Assigning of a classroom aide

There are resources available. For example:

 For more information about navigating cancer and college, visit: http://triagecancer.org/blog/category/education/

Laws That Protect the Rights of Students with Disabilities

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (section 504), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) were established to protect the rights and meet the needs of people with disabilities, such as cancer.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The IDEA provides “free, appropriate public education which includes special education and related services, to meet the unique needs of all disabled individuals between the ages of three and 21” (34 Code of Federal Regulation [CFR], Sec. 300.1[a]). This law focuses on protecting students from kindergarten through 12th grade. To receive these services, children must qualify under one of these disabilities: autism, deaf/blind, deafness, hearing impaired, mental retardation, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, serious emotional disturbance, specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, visual impairment including blindness, and other health impairments. If the child qualifies, school districts are required to provide access to special services and accommodations. Children are reassessed every three years.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – Section 504

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act states that no individual with a disability “be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance or any program or activity conducted by any executive agency” (34 CFR, Sec. 104.4). This law focuses on protecting students from kindergarten through 12th grade and at any or college or graduate school that receives federal funds. Accommodations are provided for students with chronic illnesses such as cancer, and other disabilities that inhibit them from performing one or more major life activities. Some accommodations include extra time for assignments and tests, seating near the front of the classroom, using a calculator, or having a note-taker.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

This law prohibits discrimination in the workplace, transportation, communication, government, and public accommodations for people with disabilities. As adolescents and young adults begin to seek jobs and pursue their career goals, the ADA can provide protection against discrimination and access to reasonable accommodations. For more information about the ADA and reasonable accommodations, view these Triage Cancer Quick Guides: http://triagecancer.org/QuickGuide-ADA and http://triagecancer.org/QuickGuide-ReasonableAccommodations.

Tech Advances: The Infusionarium & Improving the Patient Experience

InfusionariumIf someone asked you “if you could get your chemotherapy treatment anywhere you can imagine, where would it be?” What would you say? Underwater? In outer space? These questions were the inspiration for the Infusionarium at the Hyundai Cancer Institute at Children’s Hospital (CHOC) in Orange County, California.

The Infusionarium offers kids and teens the opportunity to explore the world all while receiving treatments such as chemotherapy infusions, radiation, and rehabilitation. Patients are able to choose between relaxing in a healing environment, watching TV or movies, and playing interactive video games.  The Infusionarium rooms are lined with screens that can transport you to faraway places, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium or watching the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s “Curiosity” rover on Mars! If you choose to spend time in the jungle, when you look up at the ceiling of the room, it’s like looking at the sky through the tree tops.

As more children and teens are surviving pediatric cancers, the need for emotional and psychosocial support has grown. Many other clinics and institutions are working to implement similar strategies to normalize treatment and build positive associations with receiving care and ultimately build strong, resilient people who are not just patients.

Staff members at CHOC have noted that patients using the Infusionarium tend to ask for less medication for nausea, anxiety, and diarrhea. Psychologically, cancer confounds what is considered to be normal adolescent development. As children and teens age, they want to become more independent, but with cancer treatment and care, kids and teens often remain in the phase of needing their parents. The Infusionarium gives patients the opportunity to assert their individuality and connect with other kids and teens facing the same experiences and issues.

At CHOC, the Infusionarium has become so popular that “traffic jams” build up throughout the day, as teens and children wait to use it. This innovative and technological advancement has improved the overall experience patients have during treatment by making the time spent receiving chemo, transfusions, and other medical treatments not just bearable, but interesting and even educational.

College and Cancer: Tips from the Inside

by Michele Rosenthal

One of my former students and advisees has said, “Being a college student is difficult enough. Adding cancer to the mix only makes things harder.”

I have been privileged to call higher education my professional home for many years. My experiences put me in close touch with students, faculty and administrative colleagues. I thoroughly enjoy working with young adults because of their energy, enthusiasm, and drive to move forward in their lives. My administratlibrary-869061_640ive work both in student and academic affairs at institutions in the midatlantic and northeastern regions of the United States has allowed me to support and help college students navigate the academic and student services landscape so that they can maximize their college journey.

In my experience, when college students are diagnosed with cancer, their drive to move forward does not diminish. For some the path may need to be altered or put on hold, but the commitment to complete their degree and move forward is palpable.

This drive is especially important at a time when budget concerns have forced institutions to cut back on resources. On many campuses, there are fewer staff members and many members of the faculty have been tasked with increased administrative responsibilities.

The very good news is that those who choose to work in higher education are committed to education and to doing their best to create academic environments that are conducive to learning despite cut backs and limited resources.

The result of budget cuts sometimes means that students need to work harder to advocate for themselves however. Simply stated, on some campuses in can be difficult to meet with a staff member in person as immediately as one may like or to receive a quick response to an email because personnel have been reduced and workloads are large. In the case of a college student who has been diagnosed with cancer, self-advocacy and tenacity are essential. It is especially important for you to be able to tell your unique story so that a situation can be created to fit your needs.

If you are student who has been diagnosed with cancer, here are 3 things that you absolutely need to know:

Create Your Support Network: While tittles vary, it is important to consider resources like The Director of Disabilities Services and Support, The Director of Health Services, The Dean of Students, Your class dean or academic advisor, your favorite professor, the Office of Student Services. Staff members in these offices will be poised to assist and support you. It is important to reach out to the The Director of Disabilities Services and Support early since accommodations that you may be entitled to (ex. extra time on an exam, housing preferences, transportation needs) cannot be granted retroactively. It might be a bit difficult to secure an appointment early on but do not give up. These folks will want to help you! Advocate and help them to get to know you.

You can complete your degree: While your diagnosis and treatment plan may alter your timeline, you can complete your degree. Do your best to be open to a reduced course load, taking time off and securing accommodations to support you while on campus. It may take time to be willing and open to making a change in your academic plan. Keep your eye on the prize and trust that although your plan may need to change, there are creative options that will allow you to earn your degree.

Create a Balance: Don’t forget to continue to engage in all that you love. If you were part of a team but can’t compete at the time of your diagnosis, maybe you can help manage it to continue to be involved. If you sang acapella or attended Student Government meetings, continue to as your treatment plan and energy allow. Do your best to let others in (as you feel comfortable) while engaging in a realistic curricular and co-curricular plan that makes sense for you.

Please feel free to contact me at MicheleRosenthal@Verizon.net if you need support and assistance to navigate and carve out a path for your unique journey.

Michele Rosenthal is a member of Triage Cancer’s Speakers Bureau and an educational consultant who has helped countless young adults with cancer identify appropriate on-campus resources and develop realistic plans for their unique circumstances.  She is currently the Assistant Dean, Undergraduate Programs, Sawyer Business School, Suffolk University.