6 Things I Say To Classmates Of A Student With Cancer

Today, we have a guest post from Melissa Epley, an inpatient child life specialist at Children’s. Melissa visits classrooms of kids with cancer to explain the disease and help the child feel comfortable returning to class after being gone for a long period of time.

When a child has cancer, one of the questions parents ask is, “What are we going to tell the school? What are we going to tell the kids who keep asking why my kid isn’t there?”

This is something I’m always happy to help with, since kids are curious by nature and have lots of questions. I tell parents that I can go into their child’s school and talk to the class, so that when their child gets back, he won’t feel embarrassed or be bombarded with questions.

Some parents want to take me up on that offer right away, within just a few days of diagnosis. Others want to wait until right before their son or daughter goes back to school.

Either way, setting up the program is a fairly easy process. The parents fill out a consent form, and I contact the school to set up a time.

Here are 6 things I always make sure to say to the class of a student with cancer.

1. “Notice how Joe has been out of school lately?”

It’s quick and simple, but I always start with this type of question. It brings everyone in, so they know the presentation is going to be about their friend—a person they care about.

2. “This is what it means to have cancer.”

Some kids have heard the word cancer, but they don’t know exactly what it means. I like to break it down into very basic and understandable terms.


When I’m explaining cancer, I give kids enough details to help them understand. But I don’t go in depth enough to confuse them or scare them.

3. “We don’t know why Joe got cancer.”

This is extremely important. We don’t want kids to be afraid of playing with Joe or thinking they can catch cancer, like they can catch a cold.

I really stress the fact that cancer is not contagious. This helps reassure them that they can still visit Joe or play with him without getting sick themselves.

It’s also important to explain that we don’t know where cancer comes from, because kids sometimes feel like they’re responsible.

I’ve heard them say things like, “Maybe he got it because we were wrestling yesterday,” or “It’s my fault because yesterday he was being a bad friend, so I wished he’d get hurt. It must be my fault he got cancer.”

4. “It’s very important to always wash your hands.”

Kids are always told to wash their hands. But proper handwashing is something that can’t be allowed to slide when a classmate has cancer.

I explain to the kids that their friend’s immune system might not work as well because of strong chemo medicine he takes, making it easier for him to get sick from germs.

Since handwashing is one of the best ways to keep germs away, I tell the class that they can help keep their friend from getting sick by always remembering to wash their hands.

5. “Everyone’s cancer is different.”

As much as I try to keep the program positive, I do get kids asking the difficult questions. Often, these are from kids who have known someone who has died from cancer. I get questions like, “My grandpa had cancer and died, so is Joe going to die?”

I usually respond with something like, “I’m so sorry that happened. Cancer is very serious, but it’s also different in every person. Joe is doing really well. He’s at a great hospital with really great doctors who are giving him the medicine and treatment he needs.”

It’s a tough question to answer, so it’s all about putting a positive spin on it.

6. “He’s still the same friend he was before.”

This is when I explain how to be a good friend to someone with cancer. I encourage them to send a card, or call their friend to tell him what’s happening in school, so he feels like he’s still in the loop.

When a student with cancer returns to school, his classmates don’t always know how to act around him. I remind the kids, “Joe is the same person and the same friend that he was before cancer. You can treat him just like you did before.”

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Also read:

Christy Hogan
My background is in child development, and I use this knowledge to connect and build trust with patients and families. I’ve been a child life specialist for more than 20 years.

One thought on “6 Things I Say To Classmates Of A Student With Cancer

  1. Many times adults don’t know what to say during difficult times, and end up melting into tears. This confuses a child who is not used to seeing adults cry. The list above is a great one to save. We all know someone that has had cancer and unfortunately there will be more.

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