Managing School During and After Cancer

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2019

You might be able to continue going to school during your cancer treatment. Or you may need to take time off and go back later. Talk with your doctor about what to expect, including how often and how long you might miss school. This article can help you decide who else to talk to and how to manage school or an absence.

Talking with the school staff

Talking with the staff at your school is important to learn about your options. They should also be able to tell you about resources to help you keep up with your schoolwork or finish later.

Your parents or caregivers can talk with school staff if you are a teenager. You might also be part of the conversation, perhaps with your guidance counselor.

If you are over 18, you will probably talk to someone in the registration office of your school or college. If they cannot answer all your questions, they can help you find the right person to talk to.

Here are some issues to discuss with school staff:

  • Attendance, since you might miss days or classes for treatment and appointments

  • Permission to wear a hat or scarf in school if treatment causes your hair to fall out and you prefer to keep your head covered

  • Activities you might not be able to do, such as gym class

  • Your schedule. You might need to take fewer classes or change your schedule for treatment.

Some hospitals have education coordinators or social workers who can meet with school staff. They can help explain your situation and needs.

Taking a leave of absence

Officially taking time off school is called a leave of absence. If you take it for cancer and treatment, it might be called a medical leave of absence. Schools and colleges have different names and rules for this type of absence, and you usually need to apply by filling out a form. Your doctor might also need to provide some information.

You are still a student if you take a leave of absence. Normally, you plan to come back at a specific time. But you might be able to take a longer leave if you need to.

Staying involved during time off

If you have the energy, staying involved with school can help you feel like you are not missing as much. This can make it easier to go back when you are ready. Here are some ways to stay involved with school during treatment:

  • Keep in touch with your friends through messaging, video chats, email, phone calls, or visits.

  • Ask a friend to take notes for you if you miss class.

  • Ask teachers if you can copy their notes, record the class, or do less homework, if possible.

  • Consider taking fewer classes, if possible. You might be able to skip gym class or electives and just take core subjects such as math and English.

  • Ask your teachers to email you assignments or send work home with a sibling, friend, or roommate.

  • Consider getting a tutor or hospital teacher to help you with schoolwork.

  • Try to attend school events that are important to you, such as a concert or game.

Put your health first

Your health should be your first priority during treatment and recovery. Side effects such as tiredness or nausea can make it difficult to concentrate on schoolwork and friends. You might need extra time to finish work, or you might not feel like going out with friends. Talk to your health care team about what is normal for your treatment and recovery. Always tell your doctor about side effects because there might be a treatment that can help.

Talking with your classmates

Your classmates will react to your cancer differently. How they react might depend on how long you are away or whether you look different, such as from losing your hair. Here are some tips to help you talk with classmates and prepare for their reactions:

  • Ask a parent or teacher to give the class some basic information about your cancer and treatment. This is helpful if you want a group of people to know about it at once. If you feel comfortable, you can ask your teachers to let you talk to the class.

  • Decide what to say, to a group or to specific people. If you talk to a group, you might want a parent, teacher, or counselor there to help answer questions. They can also take over if you get tired.

  • Consider visiting or going back for half days before you go back to school full time. This can help you get used to the effort of going to school, including being around crowds and walking between classes.

  • Ask a friend or two to meet you outside school on your first few days back. This way, you do not have to walk in alone. Friends can also help during the day if you need help getting food, carrying things to the car or bus, or just taking a break.

  • Be prepared to answer questions if you tell people you have cancer. If someone asks you something you do not want to answer, it is fine to say, “I’d rather not talk about that.”

  • Be prepared for insensitive comments or questions, such as “Why is your face puffy?” or “What happened to your hair?” Try to ignore them.

Many people are curious or concerned, and many of them want to help. If you need help talking to or dealing with classmates, ask someone you trust, such as your parents, a teacher, or a counselor.

Keeping up with schoolwork

It is natural to want to keep up with your schedule or get right back to it. But school can be tiring, even when you are not sick. Ask for help if school seems more difficult than it used to be, or you have difficulty keeping up with work. Some cancers and treatments make it hard to concentrate, remember things, and understand what you read or write. For example, “chemo brain” can make it difficult to keep up in class. Learn more about memory and thinking problems when you have cancer.

Some of these problems may be temporary, and others last longer. Tell your doctor about any changes you notice.

Scholarships for cancer survivors

You have access to some scholarships if you are a cancer survivor or living with cancer. This can provide money for further education. It might be especially helpful if your cancer treatment created a financial need. Learn more in the section on Resources for Young Adults and Teens.

Your legal rights

A United States law called the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), allows students with disabilities to receive “special accommodations.” These might include extra time to complete tests, audio textbooks, free tutoring, or wheelchair access to places you need to go.

You might not think of cancer or its treatment side effects as a disability. But if the condition makes it more difficult for you to learn or attend school, it may qualify. Up to Grade 12, your parents may ask the school to create an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 plan for you. These are personalized learning plans you can receive for medical or other reasons.

Under U.S. law, your school must consider creating a plan for you if a parent asks for it in writing. Your doctor will need to provide information, and your health care team might work with the school staff to create your plan.

Related Resources

Cancer and Friendships

More Information

13thirty: Going Back to School

Understood: Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and 504 Plan